Review – Titanic the Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th June 2018

Titanic the MusicalWell I’ve seen some examples of dramatic irony but this one takes the biscuit. When the audience knows something that the characters don’t, it’s meant to create a greater sense of tension, or heroism, or humour, or any combination of any number of emotional responses. But I can think of few shows greater than Titanic the Musical where the horror of what lies ahead is so clear to the audience but the characters are blindly oblivious to the danger. When the good ship finally sets sail but one game chap turns up too late, doesn’t get on board, and is furious with himself, not one person in that audience last night didn’t say to themselves “you don’t know how lucky you are.”

Simon Green as IsmayThere is one character who knows what lies ahead, though: J Bruce Ismay, director of White Star Line and therefore owner of the Titanic; in the opening scene we see him ravaged with agony as he looks back at the triumphal launch of the ship, despairing at its complacent captain and self-satisfied designer – a scene which all makes sense when it’s re-enacted at the end of the show, much as the structure of Blood Brothers begins and ends with the death of the Johnston twins, to increase the sense of melodrama. All Ismay can do at the end is look forward to a lifetime of regret; but that’s more than the 1500 people who perished can do. It’s fair to say that this show paints Ismay as a not very likeable man.

Niall Sheehy as BarrettSo how would you spend your last minutes alive on board a ship like the Titanic, if you knew your number was up and there’s no way out? In desperate sadness? In resigned acceptance? Take your own life first? Crack open a bottle of 1898 Cristal champagne? They’re all options. And what you come away with from this show, is an immense sense of respect for everyone on board, even those whose occasional dereliction of duty may have to some extent caused the disaster. The final scene of the show presents the audience with a wall of names of those who died, and it’s a very moving testament.

Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as the StrausesBut although we all know right from the very start that this story only has one, inexorable, tragic ending, this show tells a far from gloomy story. If you’ve ever gone on a cruise holiday, gentle reader, then you’ll know that almost indescribable sense of excitement, bewilderment and curiosity that is the hallmark of those first few hours at sea, and this show captures that thrilling optimism perfectly. And then you have the main content of the show, the several interweaving threads of the lives of individual passengers, all thrown together arbitrarily simply by virtue of having got on the same ship together. It would be impossible to depict over 2000 lives, so Peter Stone’s book and Maury Yeston’s superb music and lyrics present us with just a handful of relationships, from the first, second and third class passengers, as well as the professional relationships of officers and crew. The enduring love affair between Mr and Mrs Straus (first class – owners of Macy’s), the strained relationship between Edgar Beane and his never satisfied, wannabe socialite wife Alice (second class) and the instant cheeky pairing-up of Kate McGowan and Jim Farrell (third class passengers working their way to a better life in America) represent all human life on board, and it works incredibly well.

Philip Rham as the Captain and Oliver Marshall as BrideTechnically it’s a relatively simple show, but that means those special effects that are there have a greater impact than you might otherwise expect. The railings at the top end of the ship move upwards as the ship starts to sink, giving an incredibly effective portrayal of a man hanging on for dear life. The appalling graunching sound of the ship ploughing into the side of an iceberg stops us in our tracks and then strong white lights illuminate both the stage and the audience as if to say we’re all in this together and make us feel equally vulnerable as the characters.

EnsembleMusically I found the show highly entertaining and rewarding, and I felt it gave some nods to a few other shows that are also highly charged with emotion and drama. Apart from the structural framework that aligns it to Blood Brothers, I recognised a lot of The Hired Man in there, not so much in any particular song or scene but in the overall combination of strong individual and clear singing with emotionally charged words and situations, particularly with the third class passengers. Maybe it’s because they share similar themes and both take place in the 1910s. Whilst we’re on the subject of clarity, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musical show where each word was so beautifully enunciated throughout that it achieved an absolute 100% accuracy-to-ear delivery, and for that alone Titanic the Musical deserves an award.

The BlameThere were some Sweeney Todd nuances too, with Andrews’ pride and joy in his design reminding me of Todd’s affection for his barbers’ razors; and when, facing death, he’s re-designing his blueprint so the ship can’t sink, the music becomes very reminiscent of Jesus Christ Superstar’s sequence, Take him to Pilate, Take him to Pilate! That reprimanding urgency is also very apparent in the song The Blame, where Captain, owner and architect each point the finger at the other without anyone taking responsibility. You can really imagine that’s exactly how it happened. There was a lot of ambition, power and money at stake. Some important people with big egos playing with other peoples’ lives in order to boost their own fortunes and reputations. You can see it happening in the news today. We never learn.

Greg Castiglioni as AndrewsA large and talented cast bring this story to buzzing life with some superb performances. Simon Green’s Ismay is an immaculate portrayal of a workplace bully, pestering and pestering again until he gets the answer he wants; today he’d be up for corporate manslaughter, coward that he is. At the other end of the power seesaw, Philip Rham’s Captain Edward Smith is a rigid stickler for the old ways of doing things, but torn between his responsibilities for the lives on board and his having to toe the line of his financial paymaster. Constantly showing poor judgment by increasing the speed when he knows it is risky and ignoring iceberg warnings, he’s a complex character given a fascinating portrayal. He really looks the part too – if you ever wondered what happened to the bloke who played The Ghost and Mrs Muir

Victoria Serra as Kate McGowanThere’s a magic partnership between Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as Isidor and Ida Straus, the genteel older couple who’ve first-classed it through many a sea crossing; I defy you to watch them perform the song Still and maintain you kept a dry eye. I also really enjoyed Matthew McKenna’s performance as Mr Etches, the First Class Steward, who keeps a beautifully ordered table and knows how to smooth the waters (sadly not literally) without upsetting the boat (same observation applies).

Claire Machin and Timothy Quinlan as the BeanesThere’s a delightful performance from Claire Machin as the socially ambitious Alice Beane – a little like an American Hyacinth Bucket but not as grotesque – I loved how she felt she had to dress up for going into the lifeboats; and Victoria Serra’s Kate McGowan is full of charm and roguish ambition. Great support too from Kieran Brown as the principled Murdoch, Oliver Marshall as the radioman Harold Bride, and Lewis Cornay as both the Bellboy and entertainer Wallace Hartley. Greg Castiglioni gives a brilliant performance as Thomas Andrews, the ship’s architect, worrying away over his plans, trying to keep up with the powerplay between Smith and Ismay; and, possibly best of all, Niall Sheehy is fantastic as Frederick Barrett, the workhorse employed as a stoker, promising to return to marry his girl, and putting the bravest of brave faces on his ultimate fate.

Barrett the StokerI enjoyed this so much more than I had expected; after the disappointment of Sting’s The Last Ship a few months ago I had an awful feeling that this would be a bad year for anything dramatically nautical. Not a bit of it. This is a powerful, moving, humbling tale immaculately sung throughout. There was a fairly instantaneous standing ovation that I was more than happy to join; and don’t forget to wander down towards the stage after the show to check the names of those who perished. After all, the whole production is done in their honour. After it’s final capsize in Northampton tomorrow, the tour continues to Nottingham, Blackpool, Bromley, Bradford and Liverpool, before enjoying a couple of weeks at the Staatsoper in Hamburg. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

To the lifeboatsP. S. Overheard at the interval; some people behind us were initially disappointed to realise this was not a musical version of the Leonard di Caprio/Kate Winslet movie. No, it isn’t. Fortunately, it’s good enough for them to have overcome their disappointment, which has to be A Good Thing.

Hold on Mr AndrewsP. P. S. It started a little late and we were anxious to get home so as we could watch the recording of England’s game against Belgium before going to bed. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle noted the majority of musical numbers had already been performed, suggesting that the second act would be considerably shorter than the first (as indeed it is.) Her observation: I guess that shows there is a limit as to how much you can drag the arse out of drowning made me wonder quite how in the zone she was with her sympathies in this show.

Production photos by Scott Rylander

Theatre Censorship – 9: The 1909 Guidelines (Part Two)

Let’s look again at those 1909 guidelines, and see how they might have been applied to plays after censorship was withdrawn, as well as during the censorship years. Just to refresh your memory, here they are again.

The Lord Chamberlain should license a play unless he deemed it:

(a) to be indecent;
(b) to contain offensive personalities;
(c) to represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living person or a person recently dead;
(d) to do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence;
(e) to be calculated to conduce to crime or vice;
(f) to be calculated to impair friendly relationships with a foreign power; or
(g) to be calculated to cause a breach of the peace.

In this attempt to clarify the standards, some of the headings were phrased very loosely. For example, the definition of “offensive personalities” depends entirely on what any one person finds offensive according to his or her own standards and morals. If a dramatist could never include an offensive personality in his plays, presumably he could never effectively portray a battle between good and evil. Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, for instance, could be considered offensive; so could half the characters of Dickens, such as Magwitch, Fagin, Uriah Heep, and so on. If you’ve lived a sheltered life and you were sufficiently narrow-minded, you might be offended by the characterisation of murderers (in which case detective tales would have been badly hit), thieves, prostitutes, tramps, blasphemers, sadists and so on. Moreover, and bear with me on this one, if you’re a bigot, you’ll likely be offended by anyone who isn’t like you; Jews, gays, people of colour; really the list could be endless. Physical squeamishness or ideological difference might make one averse to lepers or communists. Alternatively, it’s perfectly possible that, as a decent balanced individual, you might not be offended by any of these. And what about the offence caused by an offensive portrayal of a Jew or a black person to other Jews or black people. The more you think about it, the messier it gets.

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson

You can even cause offence at the other end of the spectrum. Phillip Hayes Dean’s play Paul Robeson created a lot of offence for watering down the firebrand nature of the man. As a result, roughly ten years after the ending of stage censorship, the first nights of the play in both New York (1977) and London (1978) were marred by pickets outside the theatres, who referred, in London, to the “Statement of Conscience” published in Variety on January 11th 1978 and signed by about fifty American artists, headed by Paul Robeson Jr, which stated that “we…regretfully feel compelled to take the extraordinary step of alerting all concerned citizens to what we believe to be, however unintended, a pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson.” It appeared to be pernicious even though much of the material for the play was taken from Robeson’s autobiography, Here I Stand. In short, they were offended because the characterisation of Robeson wasn’t offensive enough.

Clearly the successful application of this particular guideline, during the censorship years, would have depended on the breadth of vision of the censor at the time. Under a responsible, forward-thinking man like Lord Cobbold it could probably be followed sensibly, but under a retrogressive puritan like Smythe-Pigott, it would have been a licence to impose his own morality on the public. In his book Banned! Richard Findlater discusses a number of Mr Smythe-Pigott’s idiosyncratic misjudgments, such as his refusal to license the play God and the Man. His reason? “The play was good enough, but the title was objected to. Exhibited all through London, it would have given offence to many people.”

LootReferring back to the list, it is difficult to assess what kind of work could be judged to be conducive to ‘crime or vice’. The fact that a criminal act is presented on stage does not necessarily mean that it influences the audience to go out and do likewise. In most plays the opposite is true: the criminals are punished and the audience sympathises with the victim. There are very few plays involving wrongdoers where this does not take place, notably Joe Orton’s Loot, where the bank robbers win through scot-free, and the innocent old father is falsely convicted instead; and the anti-fascist farces of the Italian Dario Fo, where the police are Keystone Kops unwittingly encouraging anarchy, but too ridiculous to be a serious threat to our freedoms.

Can't Pay Won't PayHowever, here’s a play that you could argue was indeed conducive to crime or vice. Fo’s Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!, a play that hit London’s West End in 1981, concerned itself with the decision of Milanese housewives not to pay the full inflated price for supermarket groceries, but instead to pay what they believed the goods were worth. This influenced some London Transport users to protest against the rise in fares brought about by the Law Lords’ reversal of the Greater London Council’s “Fares Fair” scheme. They too named their system “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” Protesters still insisted on paying the old cheap fare after the increase on March 21st 1982. But the protest did not last long; protests and principles are all very well, but being late for work is another matter. The Guardian newspaper reported on March 23rd that “David Wetzel, chairman of the Greater London Transport Committee, was left on the pavement yesterday by bus passengers who had taken a vote on whether they wanted to join his protest over the doubling of their fares or be late for work. Mr Wetzel had refused to pay the new fare to get to his office at County Hall, the GLC Headquarters at the time, and offered the old one as part of his Can’t Pay Won’t Pay campaign.” Mr Wetzel was ejected and the bus went on its merry way. You could interpret these protests as being a criminal act. So, it is possible, although rare, for a play to be conducive to crime if it actively advises its audience to perform illegal acts to further a cause.

What the Butler Saw Original Cast

What the Butler Saw Original Cast

The difference between this and plays which are calculated to cause a breach of the peace is not immediately obvious. There were indeed some scuffles on buses when the “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” scheme started; so you could argue that this play indirectly caused a breach of the peace as well. However, it is equally likely that this latter category of plays are those that not only advocate violence, but actually perform or create it live on stage, thereby causing the breach. Perhaps the gallery-barracking at the first night of Orton’s What the Butler Saw constitutes a breach of the peace? Or the subject matter of Handke’s Offending the Audience? Even if this is so, one cannot say for certain that these plays were calculated to cause a breach of the peace. Under normal circumstances, only plays where the behaviour of the audience develops into a full-scale riot could come under this heading.

Playboy of the Western WorldThe most celebrated case of theatre rioting is that of the reaction to J M Synge’s Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1907. The play is concerned with the rise in popularity of young Christy Mahon who brags that he has killed his father with a spade. His alleged act turns him into a local celebrity until it is shown that he merely attacked his father, but not succeeded in killing him. Her illusions shattered, his young fiancé Pegeen abandons him, but too late laments the folly of her rash action. The play was highly critical of Irish morals and cast severe aspersions on the integrity of the Irish people. The Freeman’s Journal referred to its ‘unmitigated protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still, upon Irish peasant girlhood.” Sinn Fein went further: they called it “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform”.

J M Synge

J M Synge

It seems that Christy’s Act Three image of temptation, “a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts”, was the last straw for the many proud Irish patrons of the Abbey Theatre. On the first night, Willie Fay, who played Christy, spoke of “Mayo Girls” instead of ‘chosen females’ and this localised reference was too much for the audience. The riots went on for days, with varying degrees of violence; a revival in 1909 also caused rioting, although without as much rancour, as did a tour of New England in 1911. When the Abbey Theatre board applied for a licence from the Lord Chamberlain to perform the play in England, Mr Redford was, not surprisingly, most unwilling to grant one. In the end, though, he was swayed by the literary merit of the piece, and a licence was given to perform the play in London and in Oxford. Much to the performers’ surprise, the more politically- and emotionally-distanced English received it very warmly.

Mike Mulloy and Steve Alder

Mike Mulloy and Steve Alder as Judas and Jesus in 1976

However, not all the categories are difficult to define. On the question of ‘violence to the sentiment of religious reverence’, Richard Findlater in Banned! observes that “theatre censorship was originally imposed as part of the attempt to stamp out resistance to the Reformation and to establish a settled loyalty to the Defender of the Faith, Henry VIII, as head of both Church and State”. We’ll take a look at some of the plays that were affected by censorship because of their religious content a little later on. Not only plays, of course, but musicals too; had the Lord Chamberlain’s office still been in operation in 1972 we would not have seen Jesus Christ Superstar which not only became the longest running British musical at the time, running for over eight years, but also actually received praise from many sectors of the Church for making the story of Christ more accessible. However, another musical, Jerry Springer the Opera, which featured a rather irreverent characterisation of Christ (but to be fair, also of the Devil) became the object of vitriol for many fundamental Christian groups, and was beset by protests throughout its 2006 tour.

In fact, the ban on the presentation of the deity was lifted in 1966 after a deluge of criticism both in the press and in Parliament. Amongst this criticism was a statement issued by the Religious Drama Society, whose stature in the theatre had understandably become considerably downtrodden. They pointed out that the strict repressive legislation against the portrayal of Christ on stage gave the impression “that the belief in the incarnate Son of God, true God and true Man, is either irrelevant or a fable in need of artificial protection.” In cosseting the subject, censorship hadn’t protected it, but had actually made it appear weaker or flimsier than intended.

T S Eliot

T S Eliot

In the 1950s, religious plays were shrouded in the verse drama of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, like The Cocktail Party and The Family Reunion, a play so intellectually confusing that almost every passage seems invested with spiritual significance. The major difference which separates this type of play from another landmark play of the time, John Osborne’s Luther (1961), is one of emphasis: Eliot takes his Christian salvation as the supreme unalterable tenet which moulds his characters, whereas in Osborne’s play the main character is too base, too human, to be able to adapt himself to the stereotyped monkish way of life. This chief difference is reflected in the styles of writing – Eliot and Fry had gone back to verse drama whereas Osborne had been a harbinger of tough, ruthless prosaic language, as we will see soon.

In my next post, I’m going to look at the whole subject of that first category in the list of 1909 guidelines, indecency, starting with nudity!

Theatre Censorship – 8: The 1909 Guidelines (Part One)

As already mentioned, the Committee of 1909 set down guidelines for the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to follow, if it so wished. Their report advised that “the Lord Chamberlain should license any play submitted to him unless he considered that it might reasonably be held:

(a) to be indecent;
(b) to contain offensive personalities;
(c) to represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living person or a person recently dead;
(d) to do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence;
(e) to be calculated to conduce to crime or vice;
(f) to be calculated to impair friendly relationships with a foreign power; or
(g) to be calculated to cause a breach of the peace.”

At last! An unequivocal statement of detailed guidelines for everyone to follow. You would have thought that should have pleased the people most likely to be affected by stage censorship. Less confusion means fewer arguments, right? Wrong. You can’t please all the people all of the time.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

“Now it is clear,” wrote Shaw in his preface to The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet, “that there is no play yet written or possible to be written that might not be condemned under one or other of these heads. How any sane man, not being a professed enemy of public liberty, could put his hand to so monstrous a catalogue passes my understanding.” I think it’s fair to say that Shaw wasn’t impressed. And indeed, with some reason; the censor had demanded heavy cuts from Blanco Posnet on the grounds of blasphemy, cuts which in the end Shaw refused to make. Indeed, along with H G Wells and Joseph Conrad, Shaw maintained that the threat of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship was the direct cause of the absence of notable drama during most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

the-shewing-up-of-blanco-posnetIn an infrequently performed play, the eponymous Blanco Posnet is an American Wild West reprobate accused of the theft of a horse, but it’s his defamation of God that the censor could not tolerate: “He’s a sly one. He’s a mean one. He lies low for you. He plays cat and mouse with you. He lets you run loose until you think youre shut of Him; and then, when you least expect it, He’s got you […] that’s how He caught me and put my neck into the halter. To spite me because I had no use for Him – because I lived my own life in my own way, and would have no truck with His “Dont do this, “and “you mustnt do that,” and “Youll go to Hell if you do the other.” I gave Him the go-bye and did without Him all these years. But He caught me out at last. The laugh is with Him as far as hanging me goes.”

Shaw did not meekly accept the Lord Chamberlain’s prohibition on religious grounds. He drew attention to the regular performances of the Passion Play at Oberammergau; again, taken from the preface: “The offence given by a representation of the Crucifixion on the stage is not bounded by frontiers: further, it is an offence of which the voluntary spectators are guilty no less that the actors. If it is to be tolerated at all: if we are not to make war on the German Empire for permitting it, nor punish the English people who go to Bavaria to see it and thereby endow it with English money, we may as well tolerate it in London, where nobody need go to see it except those who are not offended by it”.

Typically, Shaw overstated his argument, but his logic is clear. “Blanco Posnet” was banned because of the roughness of its language and its approach to the subject. According to Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, the late Maurice Valency, in his assessment of Shaw’s plays The Cart and the Trumpet, “Blanco’s sermon at the end of the play is certainly not couched in terms suitable to an Anglican clergyman, but his intentions are of the purest…That the God of the Old Testament occasionally makes a mistake is indicated by the story of the Fall, and the idea that God hastens to rectify his errors is quite amply attested in the story of the Flood. The seeming blasphemy of “Blanco Posnet” is in reality a consequence of its allegory”.

Edward Garnett

Edward Garnett

Two years before the 1909 guidelines were published, there was another cause celebre in the theatrical world which really shook up the whole nature of stage censorship. The Breaking Point was a play written by Edward Garnett which was refused a licence on the grounds that it was simply too tragic for its contemporary audience. Its subject matter, a young woman torn between her domineering father and the almost equally domineering “libertine” (the father’s words) who has made her pregnant although he is still legally married to his first wife, was a serious attempt to explore the mental cruelty unwittingly caused by otherwise respectable people on a vulnerable person. There is nothing obviously “wrong” with the play at all – perhaps it’s a little stuffy and dull in its second act, but it comes to a rather exciting climax; but Mr Redford simply would not allow it, refusing to tell Garnett the reason. It was one of the most obviously subjective decisions to refuse a licence. Garnett wasn’t going to stand by and let the censor get away with this. He published the play, with a preface condemning the whole institution of stage censorship; he also published an open letter to Mr Redford:

The Breaking Point[The Breaking Point] “takes current morality as it finds it, and shows the tragic consequences of a breach of its dictates. Even from your own point of view, what is there in this that calls for censure? Do the rules of your office set it down as indecent to allude to the condition of pregnancy? Manifestly no. […] Nor can you allege that the Lord Chamberlain takes “official cognisance” only of legalised pregnancy. […] The only feature in the case set forth in “The Breaking Point” for which one could not find parallels in scores of plays licensed by you is the fact that the heroine is represented as being uncertain of her condition. Is this the stumbling-block and rock of offence? If this be indeed the ground of your action, I am sure I shall carry my readers with me in marvelling at its senseless and childish prudery. You are always ready to licence plays (with or without music) which glorify and idealise vulgar and flashy lewdness. You “decline to recommend for licence” a play which, without a word of indelicacy or crudity, alludes to the tortures of that period of agonised doubt, which is not the least among the penalties of illicit motherhood. Could there be a more cutting commentary on the futility of our office and the unintelligence with which you administer it? – I am, sir, Yours, etc, Edward Garnett.”

Whilst Garnett’s play was never granted a licence, right up until the time that censorship was fully abandoned (Garnett refused to allow it to be changed, so the application for a licence was withdrawn), his stance contributed to Parliament setting up the 1909 Committee. In fact, The Breaking Point was among the very first plays directly to lead to the ultimate withdrawal of stage censorship.

In my next post, I’ll look further at the 1909 guidelines and consider them in relation to some other notable plays of the 20th century.

Review – A Night at the Ballet, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th June 2018

A Night at the BalletWhoever it is at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who has the job of planning the content for their concerts must have an enjoyable but challenging task on their hands. To create an evening purely of ballet works – with such a range to choose from – must have been more endearment than endurance. Their latest concert, A Night at the Ballet, was jam-packed with punchy tunes and glorious melodies; all from the hands of four 19th century men who put ballet music centre stage (or should that be centre stave).

Unusually, we had no soloist to offer us a virtuoso performance of some great dramatic musical landmark; but I guess that’s typical of ballet music. If it’s designed to accompany a stage performance, it needs to be performed by no more people than you can fit into your average theatre orchestra pit; all hands on deck, and no room for a specialist as you might expect in a symphony or a concerto. Instead, we had the Royal Philharmonic on top form, this time under the baton of Nathan Fifield, a conductor new to us; he’s currently the principal conductor with Nashville Ballet and this is his debut performance with the RPO.

Nathan FifieldMr Fifield is a smart, dashing, clean-cut young gentleman (is it me, or are conductors getting younger nowadays) but with a genuine sense of the beauty of the ballet and delivering some well-chosen and thoughtful observations on the pieces that the orchestra were to play. He doesn’t seem to be one of those authoritarian conductors who impose themselves on the orchestra; he seems much more to be one of the lads, albeit with the extra task of being in charge.

Our first piece was the vivacious Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s Bartered Bride. A fantastic way of getting the evening underway, with its triumphantly upbeat rhythms giving the orchestra a perfect opportunity to show their mettle. As well as the swirling violins, the brass and percussion also made a huge impact. It’s one of those pieces of music that, when you read the title on some paper, you’re not sure if you’ve heard it before; and when you do hear it, you’re full of the satisfied comfort of recognition and wonder why you don’t play it more often.

Next up, Mr Fifield introduced us to Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. He told the story of how Tchaikovsky was so impressed at Delibes’ work (and so unimpressed with his own) that if he’d heard the Delibes before sitting down to write Swan Lake, he’d never have bothered. Fortunately for the rest of mankind, that didn’t happen. I didn’t think I knew any of the Sylvia Suite, but of course I was wrong – this is an evening of Ballet’s Greatest Hits, after all – and the celebrated Pizzicato has been a mainstay of TV and radio adverts since the introduction of Independent Broadcasting. I know where Tchaikovsky is coming from, mind; that Sylvia Suite is a thing of true beauty. The grandeur of its opening and closing movements was stunningly performed by the RPO and the lightness of the Pizzicato is simply impossible not to smile at. But I was most impressed by the almost cumbersome and definitely eccentric Valse Lente, with what seems to have too many notes for its bars; I thought that was really engaging and enjoyable. Again, a fantastic job by the strings.

Mr Fifield said we should compare the Delibes and the Tchaikovsky. Hard to do, because (to me at least) Swan Lake is such a familiar piece of music – possibly one of the most engrossing and gripping works in the musical catalogue of all time. Mr Fifield conducted some parts of it – most notably the Valse and the Scene: Pas d’action – a little more slowly than I am used to hearing it – possibly the pace at which it is most frequently danced. I felt that whilst this enhanced the simple beauty of the melodies and the richness of the orchestra’s performance, it lost a little of the drama. But that’s just me. Daniel de Fry’s harp work was just sensational throughout and I particularly loved the Hungarian dance and the final Mazurka – which I was humming to myself all through the interval.

RPOgroupThe second half started with some more Delibes – this time the Prelude and Mazurka from Coppelia, and again, you are reminded just how famous some of these stonking great tunes are. Another really rousing performance from the RPO; I could imagine the lavishly dressed dancers in my mind’s eye. Next came the item that I had been looking forward to most: Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. This has been a favourite of mine since I was a very small child and in fact I even learned to play it on the piano when I was about 16 – I just about managed to scrape through it. Duncan Riddell’s magnificent violin playing brought out both the harsh eeriness and the light playfulness of the piece; I also loved the strident xylophone playing. A sheer joy throughout.

For a finale Mr Fifield brought us his own personal favourite ballet music – Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite. It sure contains some stunning tunes but I have to say I still prefer Swan Lake! Again Mr de Fry’s golden touch on the harp was magnificent, and the performance by the whole orchestra of the Adagio was absolutely first class. So much so, that it outweighed the rest of the suite’s content, and the audience weren’t really sure that the concert had finished after the performance of the final waltz. Once they were absolutely convinced now was the right time to applaud, they certainly let rip.

It was definitely one of our favourite concerts from the Royal Philharmonic from all the years we’ve been coming to see them. It was just tutu good. Next month – the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, an excuse to get out your nationalist flags. It will also be the same day as the World Cup Final, so if England are still in the tournament…. I just hope no one mentions the B word.

Theatre Censorship 7: The Age of Aquarius

Greetings, gentle reader – I’m back with more theatre censorship blog posts after a short pause for breath! In my last post, I talked about theatre clubs and how they usually got round the law, so that eventually the whole system of censorship could more or less be avoided.

Stage censorship finally came to an end with the introduction of the Theatres Act of 1968, passed by the House of Lords and published on July 19th of that year. Its main clause was that “a play shall be deemed to be obscene if, taken as a whole, its effect was such as to deprave and corrupt persons who were likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to attend it.”

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

Clearly, the type of audience expected to attend any particular production would influence a decision on whether or not it might be obscene. The way in which a play is advertised to its prospective audience, or targets a section of the community, determines, to a certain extent, the type of audience one may expect to attend it. It therefore follows that the advertising and marketing also plays an important role in determining the potential obscenity of a production. For example, had posters or hand-outs advertising Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain (1980) explained that the play contained male nudity and a scene of homosexual rape, its audiences would have been less likely to have been depraved and corrupted by it because they would have been prepared for it. Remember Emile Littler’s statement that the audience should be told what they are going to see?

My conclusion from that is that if the advertising is honest, or providing the performers omit any drastic “obscene” ad-libbing, there should be very few plays that could be charged with obscenity. On a side note, on 27th October 1981 the “Indecent Displays Act” came into force, and was significant in two ways. Chiefly, it demanded that the advertising of “obscenity”, “indecency” or “pornography” for the purposes of art, theatre, cinema, or clubs, etc, must be kept reasonably well hidden. However, the actual recognition of such advertising in this Act effectively legalises such displays themselves. If you can legally advertise (albeit discreetly) performances that are obscene, indecent or pornographic, then surely it must follow that those performances themselves must be legal too.

Hair at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Hair at the Shaftesbury Theatre

26th September was the date on which censorship officially ceased. On the 27th, Hair opened at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre; ‘permissiveness’ had not taken long to become officially acceptable. In his book Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic, Charles Marowitz called it “the cohesion of a dozen contemporary trends” and concluded that “all drama criticism is irrelevant to such an event. The show is now rollicking its way into history.” To be accurate, Hair’s journey to the stage was not without its difficulties, and the timing of the first night was part-convenient and part-coincidental. The Lord Chamberlain had insisted on several changes, resulting in three separate versions of the script being lodged at his offices. The third version was much less hard-hitting as far as the Lord Chamberlain was concerned, but other management problems caused the production to be delayed anyway.

Hair’s chief raison d’être was to protest against American involvement in the Vietnamese war, and to advocate peace and free love. For the first time since the Restoration era, any member of the public was permitted to see potentially ‘offensive’ material without being invisibly chaperoned by the censor. The overall reaction of its audiences was one of joy – the show provided such an outright display of freedom, a total release from the infringement of liberty that had previously been endured. As Charles Marowitz further remarked, “it is alarming to see a conventional strobe-effect get a round of applause as if it were a breathtaking coup-de-theatre, and one gradually comes to realise that for many in the West End audience, the ‘underground’ is surfacing for the first time.”

Hair

Hair

Critics noted that the one scene which included full-frontal nudity was, in fact, the least successful and the most inhibited. When I saw the show in 2010, I found the scene where the Army draft card is ceremoniously burned far more intense and powerful than the nudity; but that’s with the benefit of several decades of freedom. Scott Fitzgerald, of If I Had Words and Eurovision fame, was a member of the original London cast, and he told me that the theatre management left it up to the individual performers to decide whether they would strip completely or not – whilst desperately hoping that they would, of course, so as to make as big a splash as possible.

The extent to which Hair survives as a relevant and high quality piece of dramatic art is a matter of some debate. However, from my perspective, I rate this show as possibly the healthiest and most significant event in the history of the British Theatre since Shakespeare’s Globe. “Hair” certainly introduced it to the enlightened Age of Aquarius:

“No more falsehoods or derisions,
Golden living dreams of visions,
Mystic crystal revelations,
And the mind’s true liberation”

as the song goes. You can relate “the mind’s true liberation” to being an escape from oppression of all kinds, and at the time those “golden living dreams” were largely hallucinatory or drug-induced. However, one can see in retrospect that the lifting of censorship could also be considered a ‘revelation’. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office would surely never have permitted the short song (appropriately entitled Sodomy):

“Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty,
Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
Masturbation can be fun,
Join our holy orgy – Khamasutra everyone.”

This association between sexual practices in the first line – including one which is illegal – and religion in the second line (it’s a holy Father, not your dad) was designed to shock and to question old values; and with the disarmingly innocent tone struck with the use of the word nasty, to amuse as well. The new generation was obviously going to prize individualism and a determination to allow each person to lead his own life according to his own integrity – a new era of social morals and accepted behaviour. The curtain on a new era in the theatre was also being raised.

In my next blog post I’m returning to the 1909 guidelines and considering them in connection with Shaw’s Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet and Garnett’s The Breaking Point.

Review – The Country Wife, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 9th June 2018

The Country WifeWilliam Wycherley’s The Country Wife was first performed in 1675, slap bang in the middle of the period when all the theatregoing public wanted was sex – the bawdier, the better. They’d had enough of those puritans, spreading misery and restraint; what they wanted was a damn good laugh, and it had better be a filthy one too.

Lex Shrapnel as HornerIt’s a rather neatly structured and tidy example of the Restoration Comedy genre; cuckolded husbands, rampant fornicators, foppish twerps, licentious servants, as well as a story of true love and an interesting contrast between the ways of the town and those of the country – including the pun in the title, which I’m sure you’ve grasped.

Belinda Lang as Lady FidgetWe first meet the roguish Horner in conversation with his quack, who has let it be known that Horner has been diagnosed as impotent as any eunuch in the orient – so much for patient confidentiality. Horner’s plan is that this will make him irresistible to women because they will either feel safe in his company, or they will want to try to put him to the test. Either way, he wins. His first sortie is to convince Sir Jasper Fidget to get access to Lady Fidget, her sister Dainty, and their constant companion Mistress Squeamish. Easy. As an additional bonus, he gets to cuckold the men of the town in a warped, power-mad desire for dominance; the cuckold dance at the end of the play signifies the complete fruition of all his effort. He has a retinue of mates who love the sound of all that extra-marital hoo-ha, including the foppish Sparkish, who is to marry Alithea, the sister of Margery. She is herself newly married to the wretched Pinchwife, who hides her by locking her in her bedroom so that scurrilous menaces like Horner can’t winkle her out and have their wicked way with her. Does Horner indulge in a little Ladies and Gentlemen with every woman in the town? Does Pinchwife successfully preserve Margery’s virtue? Does Sparkish get to marry Alithea? As the play’s been around almost 350 years now, I’m sure you already know the answer.

John Hodgkinson as PinchwifeThis very modern version of the play – drinks trolleys, pizza boxes, neon-signed nightclubs, Ann Summers shopping bags – puts less emphasis on the fun aspect that the original 1675 audience would have relished, and more on the sordid nature of Horner’s life and game-playing, and its wider effects on those about him. We have no sympathy for Horner; we don’t identify with him and aren’t jealous that he gets all the girls. He’s a loathsome wretch, waking up on the sofa in a post-alcoholic stupor; adding more notches on his bedpost simply because he can, and because there’s nothing much else for him to do that he’d be good at. The final scene shows him back on his sofa, still knocking back the remnants of last night’s booze. He has progressed not an inch. Pinchwife’s just as bad, threatening his wife with violence, locking her away like a caged bird; and at the end of the play it’s Margery who is visibly broken by the entire experience, the true victim of all that has gone before. So, whilst it’s a lively and enjoyable production, you’re never far from having something of a dirty taste at the back of your throat.

The CompanySoutra Gilmour has designed a dark and functional set, very bachelor pad in its creature comforts; the reversable back wall has three doors, useful for highlighting the Feydeau Farce aspect of the play, and a Restoration Comedy word cloud is projected onto the back wall from time to time, just in case you forget the naughtiness of the era. There’s a lot of zaniness going on at each scene change, with chairs, beds, and what-have-yous all being swirled around in circles on their way on or off stage, as though to highlight the uncontrollably madcap nature of Horner’s world. The costumes are perfect, from Lady Fidget’s business chic and Sir Jasper’s staid old codger’s suit to the trendiest clothes you can get in H&M for all the young people. Musical man of the moment, Grant Olding, has composed some mind-joltingly harsh techo-jingles to accompany the scene changes and Jonathan Munby’s direction is slick and unsentimental.

Scott Karim as SparkishThere are smart performances throughout: Lex Shrapnel’s Horner is very believable as that lowlife swine who looks on the world as something to be wrung out to dry for his own benefit, a professional manipulator who doesn’t even need much in the way of charisma to get what he wants. John Hodgkinson’s Pinchwife is a tetchy mass of nervous energy, constantly on his guard against unwanted approaches; it’s an excellent portrayal of a man brought to the brink of anxiety by his own selfishness, whose only fuel left in his tank is to attack the one he loves. Belinda Lang is a delightfully over-the-top poseuse as the affected Lady Fidget; Scott Karim gives a good account of the foppish Sparkish, including the most insincere chuckle you’ve ever heard; and there’s excellent support from Ashley Zhangazha and Jo Herbert as Harcourt and Alithea, the genuine young lovers caught up in all this nonsense.

Susannah Fielding as MargeryThe night, however, belongs to Susannah Fielding, who is superb as Margery, with wonderful wide-eyed innocence mixed with her sad, suppressed and frustrated expressions as she languishes pointlessly alone on her bed. There’s a wonderful scene where Pinchwife has to lead Margery through the town so she is disguised as a man – or in this case, a schoolboy, nevertheless pretending to be Pinchwife’s brother – much to the amusement of the onlookers. You’ll never think of Wee Jimmie Krankie in the same way again. An immaculate performance bringing out all the pathos and humour that befits the role.

Jo Herbert as AlitheaThis was a preview performance, so there was always a possibility that some things might change before press night. It’s a little long at just under three hours, but it’s difficult to see where any further cuts could be made. Certainly, the second part of the play feels more rollicking than the first, which was a shame for those dozen or so people who decided to leave at the interval; a harsh judgment on their part, I thought. It’s a powerful, relevant production, perfect for introducing a new generation to the wicked world of the Restoration.

Ashley Zhangahza as HarcourtP. S. As it was gone 10.30 pm when it finished, it was too late for us to pay our usual homage at the Cote Restaurant in Chichester; it’s a town that likes to go to bed early. So for the first time we stayed behind at the Minerva Bar and Grill and had some of their sharing plate suppers – and they were absolutely delicious. A bottle of Merlot and terrific service eased our way almost into the new day. Definitely recommended as a brilliant way to finish your evening at the theatre!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Theatre Censorship – 6: Taking Sides and Going Clubbing

Kenneth Tynan

Kenneth Tynan

You’ll remember, gentle reader, that the Society of West End Theatres was the only voice supporting the continuation of the Lord Chamberlain’s role as censor. Opposing SWET in this argument were, amongst others, the playwright John Osborne, the critic and commentator Kenneth Tynan, the director (and not yet knighted) Peter Hall, who represented the Royal Shakespeare Company, and writer, lawyer and creator of Rumpole, John Mortimer, who spoke on behalf of the League of Dramatists. All of them called for freedom for playwrights to be able to write without fear of censorship, a freedom that had never been enjoyed in Britain before. Tynan’s opposition to the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship was already well-known. In his collected reviews and essays Tynan Right and Left, he had already referred to the censor in print as “The Royal Smut-Hound”, describing him as a “baleful deterrent lurking on the threshold of creativity”.

Lord Cobbold

Lord Cobbold

It’s also interesting and revealing that Lord Cobbold, the Lord Chamberlain himself, did not approve of the fact that his office had the responsibility of censoring plays. His argument, which was put forward in the House of Lords on 17th February 1966, was in three parts: “It now seems to me absurd,” went his statement, “with the prevalence of drama in the other media, that the censorship of stage plays should be dealt with in an entirely separate category… I do not think it makes sense that any one individual should have that responsibility without any policy directives beyond what we can get out of the last report of the last Select Committee which, of course, was never approved by Parliament and is fifty years old anyhow; and that he should bear those responsibilities without any right of appeal against his decisions… It does seem to me to be constitutionally advisable in present circumstances that somebody who holds the position which I hold in the Royal Household should not bear the responsibilities of theatre censorship.”

SavedBut there was a get-out clause for dramatists in those days. The Lord Chamberlain’s ruling could usually be avoided by staging plays at Theatre Clubs – I say “usually” advisedly, because this was not a foolproof way of avoiding his judgment. Reference is made in the Committee’s report to the legal action brought against Saved by Edward Bond in 1966, which had an eight-week run performed by the English Stage Company under its name, the English Stage Society, at the Royal Court, under “club” rules. The report confirmed that where ‘a magistrate held that under Section 15 of the Act an offence was committed by any person who presented a play for hire, whether or not the general public was admitted.’

John Van Druten

John Van Druten

Among the early clubs only the Arts Theatre near Leicester Square survives today in near enough its original form; as early as 1928, a year after its opening, the Three Hundred Club used that theatre to stage the play Young Woodley by John Van Druten, ‘perhaps the most exquisite study in existence of a boy’s awakening to love’, according to the critic in the Daily Telegraph. The play had earlier been banned by the Lord Chamberlain for the rather charming misdemeanour of depicting a school prefect who falls in love with his housemaster’s wife – a perfectly realistic scenario, I’m sure. But the Lord Chamberlain at the time, Lord Cromer, attended a club performance at the Arts Theatre, and backtracked on his original decision, deciding to give it a licence after all, subject to the removal of just one line. This was probably the first instance of the Lord Chamberlain publicly changing his mind over his decision to ban a play.

A View from the BridgeIn 1955 the Arts Theatre staged the first club performances of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (when it transferred to the Criterion theatre later that year the word “erection” had to be removed and the character Fartov was renamed Popov) and in 1956 of Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors. Also in 1956 London’s Comedy Theatre (now the Harold Pinter Theatre) became the headquarters of the New Watergate Theatre Club and was the home of such drama milestones as Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge (1956), Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1957), and Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), all of which remained unlicensed because of their references to homosexuality. The popularity of these productions, combined with the publication of the Woolfenden report, recommending the decriminalisation of homosexual relationships, did much to persuade the Lord Chamberlain to relax his restrictions on homosexual matters on stage. In 1958 his office issued the following statement: “This subject is now so widely debated, written about and talked over, that its complete exclusion from the stage can no longer be regarded as justifiable.”

The memorandum went on to list the criteria which would influence the attitude of the censor:

“i) Every play will continue to be judged on its merits. The difference will be that plays will be passed that deal seriously with the subject.

ii) Plays violently homosexual will not be passed.

iii) Homosexual characters will not be allowed if their inclusion in the piece is unnecessary.

iv) Embraces or practical demonstrations of love between homosexuals will not be allowed.

v) Criticism of the present homosexual laws will be allowed, though plays obviously written for propaganda purposes will be judged on their merit.

vi) Embarrassing displays by male prostitutes will not be allowed.”

This list considerably helped to clarify the situation, although today they still appear far from suggesting there was an equal playing field between gay and straight characters. For example, one wonders exactly what a “violently homosexual” play would be; and with the benefit of hindsight it’s regrettable that a play couldn’t contain a gay character unless their homosexuality was a vital element of the play. Nevertheless, an unavoidable result of this more relaxed attitude was that, on the whole, theatre clubs began to die out; plays involving homosexuality had quickly become their basic fodder, and now their subscriptions were no longer a necessary part of theatre-going.

I’m going to take a short pause from the stage censorship blogs but in my next post, in a week or so, I’ll take a look at how Hair became the first show to open in London after the abolition of censorship.