Flotsam, Jetsam And Then Some

SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS at the Hampstead Theatre Club, Swiss Cottage.

Together with Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams must surely rate as one of the greatest contemporary American playwrights. Since the mid 40’s when his ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ burst upon the London stage, he has given us a wealth of compelling, soul-searching plays. Many of these have transferred successfully to the screen, and in most he has written particularly strong roles for the female leads. One publicity report in recent years claims that he wrote most of his leading roles with Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando in mind. The last play of his to appear in the West End several years ago was ‘Period Of Adjustment’. This was not a particularly successful venture, and since then, though he has had new plays produced on or off Broadway, none have reached our shores ’til now.

In SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS he makes a welcome return to the London theatre, explosive moments, but watch her in the setting his characters in a sleazy waterfront bar on the Californian coast. O’Neill used this setting to good effect in one of my favourite plays ‘The Iceman Cometh’, and William Saroyan also found himself a winner by using a barroom for his play ‘The Time Of Your Life’. Both these authors used a wide range of characters, and there were a good many well written cameo scenes involving two or more characters at a time. Unfortunately Williams only gives us 9 characters, and has not allowed much interplay between them.

The losers and boozers of life that use this bar are familiar to us from previous Williams plays, but once again he enlivens the proceedings by having them philosophise about their lives. His observance of human frailty and loneliness are once again pinpointed right on target.

The proceedings are dominated by Elaine Stritch, playing Leona, a middle-aged beautician who has reached the end of a 6 month affair with a worthless ageing stud. She is celebrating the anniversary of the death of her brother when the play commences, and makes her entrance flinging a deluge of abuse at her lover. Vivian Matelon’s direction of the play has allowed her to overstate in her quiet moments of the play as she observes the people around her. Particularly moving is the scene where she questions and talks to two homosexuals. Her expressive face as she listens to them is a story in itself. She has been to hell and back, and one can identify with her resilience towards the hardships of life.

The other inhabitants of the bar include an alcoholic doctor who has been barred from the profession but continues to perform the occasional operation, played by George Pravda, and a homosexual hack screen writer perceptively portrayed by Tony Beckley who delivers one of the author’s most telling speeches. Edward Judd as the insensitive stud gives another of his fine performances.

Perhaps the most typical of all Williams’ creations is the character of the half-wit derelict girl, who is ready to accept the first offer given to her. She is played to perfection by Frances de la Tour.

FOOTNOTE: Since this review was written we have heard that the production is to open at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London W1, on March 13.

Formula For A Play

DEAD EASYRecently playing at Richmond Theatre, Richmond.

Take one well known stage, film and TV personality – in this case Irene Handl – and cast her in the role of a friendly cockney charlady. Set the action in the offices of a London business firm, and have a murder committed within the opening moments of the play. Have the Detective Superintendent in charge of the case portrayed as a big, burly, miserable type to contrast with Irene’s lovable character. Then have her solve the case for him after sprinkling some red herrings along the way. The result was titled BUSYBODY and had quite a successful run a few years ago at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

Now let a few years elapse and present a play called DEAD EASY. Cast Irene Handl in the role of a friendly cockney charlady.

Set the scene in the offices of a London business firm, and let her discover a dead body early in the proceedings. Let the Detective Superintendent in charge of the case be a humourless man who can’t solve the three murders that ensue, and let Irene solve the case for him.

With the exception of the various murders the two plays are almost identical. DEAD EASY is touring around and might reach the West End. Irene Handl gives yet another of her lovable, friendly performances, but other than that there isn’t much to recommend it.

Theatre In The Round

MY FAT FRIEND at the Globe Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1.

Television writer Charles Laurence has used his experience in writing slick dialogue for such shows as ‘Now Take My Wife’, to good avail in this new stage comedy. He has provided Kenneth Williams with a deluge of sharp-edged remarks to fire at all and sundry – and admirers of Williams will know there is nobody around who can top him for acid-tongued delivery. I realise that a little of Mr Williams goes a long way (and here he is on stage almost throughout) but he is served well by the author, and manages to employ all of his many voices during the evening. At times the laughter of the audience began to sound like one of those dreary TV shows which use ‘canned laughter’ and there were moments when I wished the cast would pause just a moment longer, so that none of the dialogue was missed.

The play is set in the lounge and kitchen of a house in Hampstead. The owner is an overweight young woman who runs a bookshop adjoining the house. She has two tenants, one a young Scot who assists her in the shop, as well as doing most of the cooking in the house. Her other tenant is Kenneth Williams, playing (of all things) a civil servant. The bohemian atmosphere of the household is well established in the opening scenes, showing that none of the 3 characters are involved with each other sexually. However, the author has given Williams one extremely funny scene where he attempts a mock seduction of the other male tenant in the house.

After opening with a lavatory joke, I was relieved to find the humour improved by the minute with Williams berating the girl for being so fat, and going through every type of ‘fat joke’ in existence. She herself seems unconcerned about her appearance, but when a young man wanders into the shop in search of travel books and invites her out to dine, she has a change of heart.

An overnight romance begins before the man flies abroad for 4 months. It is then that Williams gets the idea for the girl to go on a crash diet and there follows some amusing moments involving a mobile sauna, as well as our heroine returning from a sprint on Hampstead Heath dressed in a ‘track suit’.

After an evening of such fast and witty dialogue, it was interesting to find a few quiet moments towards the close of the play that suddenly showed great insight into the main characters. Kenneth Williams is of course a delight, and it is a tribute to his talent that one never feels he is upstaging anyone else, as indeed the other 3 players are all allowed to make their presence felt. Jennie Linden is admirable in the title role, and two impressive West End debuts are made by John Harding as the serious young Scot, and Bernard Holley as Miss Linden’s admirer.

Bunny Ain’t Funny

BUNNY at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, London.

I have endured many of life’s disasters by holding on to the belief that ‘nothing is as bad as it seems’. However, this thought did not work for me as I sat watching this new Norman Krasna comedy titled BUNNY. The evening comprised two one-act plays about a high class call girl operating in New York.

I’ve grown so used to seeing Eartha Kitt over the years as that smouldering tigress that I was not ready for her giggling, at times almost hysterical portrayal of Bunny the call-girl. The play uses that device so popular in restoration comedy of having her walk stage centre and address the audience directly from time to time. This is usually a fun moment in a play providing the person doing the talking has some amusing comment to make. Alas, all Miss Kitt’s writers have given her is a prolonged chat about what will occur next. This style of theatre reaches a new low at interval time when our Eartha once again slips in front of the curtains to remind us not to smoke in the auditorium.

The second play was admittedly an improvement due to the fortunate casting of David Kossoff as an elderly Jewish business man who keets Miss Kitt and proceeds to have a platonic friendship with her. Their playing together is very good and both players are worthy of better material.

Having been an admirer of Eartha Kitt’s since the days when she was a dancer in the Katherine Dunham company (and she practically stopped the show with her one solo song) it saddens me to say that for once the magic doesn’t work. Come back soon, Eartha, in a better vehicle.

In Ten Days The Circus Leaves Town

I’ve never seen a pantomime like Le Grand Magic Circus – and I’ve never seen a circus like it either. In fact, to say that Robinson Crusoe, which the Grand Magic Circus is staging at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London, until January 20 is unique is no overstatement.

In short, you don’t get to see many pantomimes that don’t have women dressed up as men trying to look like women as the principals or men dressed up as women trying to look like men dressed as women in support roles. Le Grand Magic Circus has none of the overblown panto about it.

Instead of a yesterday’s pop idol clutching onto a hand-mike, Robinson Crusoe gives us the mime that gave panto its name. Forget yer usual R.C. story, this one has Crusoe hanging around in a hammock watching the telly while Friday pulls massive cardboard vegetables out of the ground.

So it’s not a pantomime in today’s accepted-and-debased sense. It’s real theatre. And it’s no ordinary circus, either. The only animals used are a few birds (a chicken and a goose inter alia) who make noisy and unexpected entrances from various parts of the auditorium. Otherwise the zebras, very obviously human underneath it all.

Le Grand Magic Circus started life as a street-theatre group in the Paris troubles of May 1968. Robinson Crusoe has grown out of that. It works on two levels, it’s fun and it’s a piece of propaganda about the telly-watching landlord Crusoe, who’s not sure he wants to be rescued while life’s so soft on his island.

This is one band of actors who can get me to pay to see it a second time, and get me to forget all my reservations and participate. Robinson Crusoe is quite easily the most interesting thing on London’s stage. But the Circus leaves town on January 20. Get in quick and see the show. It may be a long time before you get another chance.

All About Margo

APPLAUSE at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket.

The London critics to a man have sung the praises of Lauren Bacall for her appearance in the musical APPLAUSE, and I can but echo their comments. It is difficult to find any new adjectives not already showered on her, and I am grateful that for once the original star of a Broadway show has graced our shores. We’ve missed out in the past on seeing the original ‘Dolly’, and of course Merman in ‘Gypsy’, but here after a two year wait is the Margo Channing we’ve heard so much about.

Bacall first burst upon the screen in a Hemingway story titled TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and was instantly hailed as a promising new star. In those days everybody quite rightly ‘The Look’. With her provocative eyes and smouldering sexuality she delivered lines such as ‘If you want anything, just whistle’ to perfection.

In her earlier films she didn’t always get the chance to prove her worth as an actress, appearing more as a ‘personality’, but when Fox gave her the role of a cynical gold was tagged with a ‘nickname’ and hers was digger in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE she came into her own, making a perfect contrast to those two dumb blondes Monroe and Grable. Later in Metro’s DESIGNING WOMAN she again had a role worthy of her talents, and I was hopeful that she might appear more often in this type of sophisticated comedy.

However, her appearances became less frequent, though her last one in THE MOVING TARGET (alias HARPER) proved that she had lost none of her talent for delivering witty dialogue. I bless whoever had the idea of bringing her to the stage to portray Margo Channing, as I truly can’t imagine anyone else doing the role as well as her.

The Mary Orr story THE WISDOM OF EVE is supposedly based on an incident in the life of Elizabeth Bergner, famous European star of the 30’s. When Fox purchased the story, Joseph L Manckiewicz re-worked the script, basing it on Tallulah Bankhead and incidents that occurred when she starred in a Broadway play.

Claudette Colbert was the original actress chosen to play Margo, but when she fell ill, Bette Davis replaced her and went on to score one of her greatest triumphs. ALL ABOUT EVE received a total of 14 Academy Award nominations and won seven Oscars. The film has become a favourite with movie buffs everywhere and is up there with the big money makers of all time.

I am surprised that it took so long for its conversion into a musical as the plot lends itself so well to musical numbers. Comden and Green are responsible for the book, and these clever writers have already given joy to theatre and cinemagoers with their writing. Their book incorporates a lot of the original film script plus many funny new lines. There is a noticeable effort to remind the audience that this is a NOW show. For example at one point we are treated to the sight of the derrieres of 3 of the chorus boys, and there’s even a mention of Screw magazine thrown in for good measure.

The character of Eve is a complex one, part Cinderella and part Wicked Witch. The one flaw I found with both film and show is that I felt these show business people would never be taken in by her for one moment. Ann Baxter’s subtle performance managed to overcome this fault admirably. I’ve met a few Eve Harringtons in my life (believe me you don’t have to be a Broadway star to come across them) and one can’t always spot them in the beginning. In this show Angela Richards is most believable in the role of Eve – she is all sweetness and light for just the right amount of time (perhaps a longer period than in the film) before she shows her true colours. In her last big scene near the end where she sings ‘One Halloween’ she really lets loose, and we see the tigress hidden just below the surface.

Ken Walsh as the hairdresser is the only one who is on to Eve’s tricks from the beginning, and he is a valuable asset to the show. Sheila O’Neill scores well, as she does in every show, with her vivacious singing and dancing of the title song, and later in ‘She’s No Longer A Gypsy’. I wasn’t too struck by the choreography, having to agree with a friend who remarked that each routine ended with ‘Good Friday arms’.

The music by Charles Strouse is unmemorable, but in several instances I was noticeably pleased with Lee Adam’s lyrics, especially in Bacall’s cynical first act closer, ‘Welcome To the Theatre’.

As for Lauren Bacall herself, I can only reiterate and borrow from Miss Stein – “A star is a star is a star” … Her curtain call at the finale was ‘something else’ – standing triumphantly on an empty stage in a shimmering black dress she looked like a million dollars — and rightly deserved the bravos from her audience.

Theatre For Christmas

Someone in the editorial collective decided it would be a nice idea if I would select what I thought were suitable shows for our readers to see at Christmas, as that’s the time of year a lot of folk take an occasional visit to the theatre. Firstly take into consideration that we go to press 3 weeks before the actual Christmas week so do check the daily papers to ensure the show you wish to see is still running.

Now it rather depends on the type of show you want to see, and who you are going to take along (if anybody) so I’ll try and categorise those that I consider the best ones.

If you are considering taking along a parent, aunt or anyone approaching middle age, settle for GONE WITH THE WIND at Drury Lane Theatre which has enough glamour to appeal to them, or if you feel a straight play would be preferable I suggest one of the following:

LLOYD GEORGE KNEW MY FATHER at the Savoy Theatre which is a light comedy not likely to offend anyone, and skilfully played by Celia Johnson and Sir Ralph Richardson. Another safe bet is CROWN MATRIMONIAL at the Haymarket Theatre which is the story of Edward VIII’s abdication and would especially appeal to people over 40 who can recall the era when this story took place, and THE DAY AFTER FAIR* at the Lyric Theatre stars the lovely Deborah Kerr in a charming romantic drama.

There are quite a few shows that you can take a child to and that won’t bore you in the process. TOAD OF TOAD HALL is playing at the Jeanette Cochran Theatre, ALICE IN WONDERLAND performed by 10 foot puppets at the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill Gate sounds interesting, and a new musical version of THE WATER BABIES is due at the Cambridge Theatre, starring Neil Reid of ‘Opportunity Knocks’ fame, with music by John Taylor, the talented composer of ‘Charlie Girl’.

If just you are involved in this theatre trip then let me first mention what is still, in my opinion, the best straight play in town, THE PHILANTHROPIST at the Mayfair Theatre. This forerunner of ‘Butley’ is also set in a college and is likewise all about one of the ‘losers in life’ and it’s an extremely enjoyable evening. Certainly the next best production in town must be LONDON ASSURANCE* at the New Theatre. If you fancy a ‘period piece’ and enjoy first class ensemble playing, this cannot be bettered. My third choice for straight theatre is undoubtedly PRIVATE LIVES at the Queens Theatre, for its witty script and star performance by Maggie Smith, but whether or not you’ll be able to get a seat is another matter entirely.

Which leaves us with the musicals and one revue. HULLA BALOO* at the Criterion Theatre is a fun evening and Rogers and Starr with their blue tinged material will give you a lot of laughs. The two religious musicals are still with us: GODSPELL* at the Wyndhams which I found delightful, and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Palace Theatre, which I didn’t care for but everyone else did so I might be wrong. THE DIRTIEST SHOW IN TOWN* is still running at the Duchess Theatre and though I missed a few of the jokes along the way I found it at all times enjoyable. APPLAUSE at Her Majesty’s Theatre is hard to get tickets for, but worth the effort to enjoy Lauren Bacall’s star presence, and as we go to press Tony Newley’s latest musical THE GOOD OLD, BAD OLD DAYS is about to open at the Prince of Wales Theatre and if the score is anything to go by ought to be worth the visit.

One last word regarding theatre prices which are getting higher each year. If you really find front stalls too expensive, but don’t care to be sitting a mile away, I can recommend the back dress circle at those shows marked * as not being too expensive and not too far away. Also the back stalls at Mayfair Theatre for THE PHILANTHROPIST are inexpensive and of course both the Jeannetta Cochran Theatre and Mercury Theatre with their children’s shows are reasonably priced.

Two Right Royal Evenings

CROWN MATRIMONIAL at the Haymarket Theatre.

I once knew an obscure silent film star whose every other sentence involved famous people. She’d speak of meeting Scott Fitzgerald at a dinner given by the King of Spain, but on asking further questions about them, she had very little else to say. I was reminded of her whilst watching CROWN MATRIMONIAL as the first scene set in Marlborough House has the Queen Mary asking her son, on his return from the continent, “How was George of Greece, and did you see Carol of Rumania?” This sort of name dropping is all very well provided it is going to lead somewhere, but apart from a few words, nothing further is mentioned of these famous personages.

Likewise I felt at times as if I were visiting Madame Tussauds, so much did these players resemble the real people in face and dress. Although the plot is familiar, interest is held throughout by the course of events and the dialogue given to the stage Royals. Who can presume how these characters would act and talk when in the privacy of their homes. The author Royce Ryton has used his imagination well. Aided by Wendy Hiller, portraying Queen Mary, one senses the feeling of royalty and grandeur in her every move.

Peter Barkworth playing Edward 7th reminded me of that monarch’s smile and warmth, whilst Amanda Reiss received an ovation on her first entrance for her uncanny resemblance to our present Queen Mother at that time. I was less happy with Andrew Ray’s impersonation of George 6th, feeling he was too young for the role, but in his one big scene he was extremely moving. Lastly the costumes and sets are first rate, and just how I would imagine the interior of a Royal household would look.

I AND ALBERT at the Picadilly Theatre

When one reads of delays of an opening night, hears stories of early previews over-running by 45 minutes, and of the leading man being taken ill and the understudy taking over at short notice, then the signs are surely there that ‘something is rotten in the State of Denmark’, or in this case at the Piccadilly Theatre.

What possessed that fine director John Schlesinger to become involved in all this? I would call it ‘a pageant with music’ as it turned out to be the most talkative musical I’ve yet come upon. The musical score manages to range the entire field of music in one evening, commencing with an oompah pa song about naughty London in the early 1800’s (did I detect some rather risque lyrics well hidden under the blaring orchestra?), a syncopated modern style tune that owed a lot to the song ‘The best is yet to come’, all the way to a tender ballad sung by Prince Albert. The title song ‘I and Albert’ is tuneful, and the ‘Victoria and Albert Waltz’ is a haunting theme used when they first meet. Somewhere in the second half Disraeli stops the show whilst performing conjuring tricks and singing with great panache the sung ‘When You Speak with a Lady’. But this song is out of place with the character and plot so that it takes several minutes to settle back into ‘the plot’ … and oh how that plot goes on and on without really reaching any point. Polly James plays Victoria competently enough, ranging from young womanhood to old age, though one wonders what became of her middle years. At one time the character she portrays was aged around the late 50’s, but there she was giving an impersonation of a woman of 70 – no in-between, alas.

Sven Bertl Taube makes a handsome leading man as Prince Albert. He has a good singing voice and is suitably stiff and solemn as the part calls for. Aubrey Woods and Lewis Fiender play two roles each during the evening as Victoria’s ministers and bring light comic relief to the proceedings. The show would be lost without the two stairways placed on either side of the stage and a great deal of the action is performed on them which involves the cast running about on them ’til one gets almost dizzy watching. After Albert dies, the stage is draped in black mourning, both costumes and curtains are black and there is a feeling of ‘death in the family’ which is almost prophetic of the show itself.

Dilly ‘N’ Starr

HULLA BALOO at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly

Good news for fans of those talented drag artists Rogers and Starr is that they are now to be seen in the West End in a new revue HULLA BALOO. Harold Fielding had the unusual idea of pitting the combined talents of these two with local comedian Jimmy Edwards and that ‘Laugh-In girl’ Chelsea Brown, and it works well.

The curtain rises to show a public convenience with 3 cubicles on either side of the stage and that more or less sets the tone of the humour for the rest of the evening. Rogers and Starr score early on with one of their popular numbers ‘Rape’ and again in the second half with their famous ‘Beyond the Freud’ number which was so popular with the audiences at the Hampstead Theatre Club where they had 2 successful seasons of late night revue 2 years running. Roy Starr repeats his amusing ‘Dear Marje’ takeoff of Marjorie Proops, and Michael Rogers follows with his rather cruel Dietrich impersonation, descending the toilet stairs impeccably gowned in a transparent salmon pink shimmering dress.

In the second act the two of them proceed to demolish ‘Gone With The Wind’ with their hilarious portrayals of Mammie and Prissie the maid. It was interesting to note how enjoyable Jimmy Edwards can be when he stops ad-libbing. His talk on gardening ‘Are you listening, Mary Whitehouse?’ involves some useful information on the growing of roses: ‘First get your beds ready, go easy with the trowel and don’t give ‘er more than 5 inches to start with…’ and he gets good participation from the audience with his song about Enoch Powell. Chelsea Brown looks good and has several numbers to sing, including the title song, an obscure Duke Ellington number ‘Tulip or Turnip’ and one of Michael Rogers’ own songs ‘Powder My Back’.

Giving good support to the stars are two goodlooking boys, Ted Merwood and Roy North, and the talented Marcia Ashton, well known to fans of the Roy Hudd Show on TV and to anyone with a long enough memory as the star of the original production of ‘Cranks’ – nice to see her back in town. The finale involves a hilarious song all about Bums, titled THE END – AND A SONG IN PRAISE OF IT featuring Rogers and Starr in fabulous white creations cut low at the back to expose both their pretty behinds. A fun evening tinged with blue humour, but nothing to really offend anybody.