Now then – we’ve survived Hamlet’s girl-friend, we been battered by Brian – is that it for storms for now? The sky curdled, winds whipped up white horses on the reservoir, it felt like the End of the World, but the Four Horsemen failed to appear. The US President went back to tweeting childish nonsense, the weird Korean carried on piling up bombs and rockets and Mrs May and her futile band carried on squirming and simpering in Brussels. So let’s us just carry on with our humdrum, sometimes happy, sometimes even creative lives – maybe we’ll all last just a little longer.
Far from Trump, far from cataracts and hurricanoes: donkey rides at the South bay, Scarborough
An early creative inspiration for many of us in the theatre world was a remarkable man called Stephen Joseph.There’s a theatre named after him in Scarborough, where I’m sure most of you know Alan Ayckbourn has over several decades created many famous plays. It’s an unavoidable signpost to one’s age to note that that, as a former student of Stephen’s at Manchester University, I was part of a gathering to mark fifty years since he died of cancer. We new graduates cut our teeth as professional actors in Stephen Joseph’s company at the Theatre-in-the-Round in Scarborough Library, the fore-runner of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the splendidly revived and refurbished Odeon Cinema next to the railway station. A key event that season was the production of a new play called “Meet My Father”, directed by Stephen Joseph with one of our fellow grads George Taylor (later George Taylor PhD, Senior Lecturer.) The play had been written by a former actor in Stephen’s company working at that time for BBC radio, with a brief to create a “well-made play”, something which for a 1960s “new-wave” writer rather went against the grain.
The play was staged, a West End producer came to see it – and thus Alan Ayckbourn’s first major commercial hit came about, when it appeared in London under the title “Relatively Speaking”. It starred Celia Johnson, Michael Hordern Richard Briers and Jennifer Hilary. The Scarborough production had featured David Jarrett and Peter King in the male roles, with two fresh-faced Manchester grads, Joanna Tope and Catherine Naish in the female parts. It is wondrous to report that both these terrific ladies – fresh of face as ever – were at our gathering, and here they are with Sir Alan – plus the original poster.
Alan, of course continues to expand his amazing catalogue of work. During the weekend I at last caught up with his revival of “Taking Steps” – the play which for me resonates with memories of Shanghai (see previous blog-posts) – and his latest comedy for the Scarborough company, “A Brief History of Women”. This is the writer the Guardian once called Britain’s leading feminist playwright, and he’s not lost an ounce of his touch in creating deft comic situations and lovely real characters – gifts for actors, female and male. Another extraordinary piece “The Divide” opens at the Old Vic in London on February 1st.
Here’s one of our occasional contributions to the pub quiz: which play first produced at Scarborough has generated the most income world-wide? Here’s a clue – it wasn’t written by Alan Ayckbourn. One of our Manchester grads, Terry Wilton, has become the third of my friends to appear in the West End production of “The Woman in Black”, adapted by Stephen Mallatrat from Susan Hill’s novel, first directed at Scarborough by Robin Herford in 1987 – and repeatedly revived for packed audiences by Robin ever since all over the world.
It’s a great ghost story – a brilliant conjunction of economical writing, neat direction and terrific acting. If you haven’t seen it and you’re in London – why not go tonight? ’tis Hallowe’en after all. It’s at the Fortune Theatre. Be sure to book a seat on the central aisle…
Elsewhere in London, I’ve clocked a few shows these last weeks in the course of my duties looking after NYU students. Perhaps the most striking was the high-octane children’s theatre troupe Les Enfants Terribles at Wilton’s Music Hall (no relation to Terry, right) the deliciously re-instated Victorian venue near Tower Bridge.
The combination of atmospheric venue, cleverly-wrought and manipulated puppets in dark, crunchy story-lines works a treat – although I have one note for all actors who find it necessary to use microphones – please don’t shout! To tell one of the stories the company had managed to engage Dame Judi Dench in an audio-recording, which they and their puppets illustrated in actions. I so wanted to plead with them to listen and learn from her crystal-clear, unforced, beautifully-paced delivery. Guys, let the audience come to you – fun though your show is, if you shout into your throat-mikes after a while we all stop listening!
Another interesting event has been watching Juliet Stevenson in “Wings” at the Young Vic. Now this was written as a radio play, and is the story of a female stroke-victim who, before being struck down with illness, had been a noted aviatrix. To make it theatrical, the director hit on the idea of the character delivering parts of the play while floating above the stage in a wired harness, to invoke her life as a flyer.
Juliet Stevenson is of course brilliant, and manages to rivet the audience’s attention to her character’s lines and the unusual staging with breathtaking skill, both interpretive and physical, gliding elegantly some ten feet or so above the transverse stage.
Alas, the night we were there these exertions brought on a nose-bleed, and Juliet had to leave the stage for very nearly half an hour. But the audience took it well, we all chatted while she recovered, she played the part superbly when she came back, and earned a rapturous standing ovation.
Pictures: The Telegraph
Meanwhile at home in the marshes, our habitat has hit the news.
The Guardian ran a major feature on the opening to the public of “Europe’s Biggest Urban Wetland “. And you’ve been arriving in your hundreds, with your buggies, your bikes and your running-shoes. And of course you’re welcome, very welcome – but please, please this isn’t a park!! It’s a wild-life preserve, and the birds and the animals and the fish aren’t used to hundreds of people making loud noises and leaving empty beer-bottles and allowing their kids to throw stones into the water. The site managers haven’t yet got all the signage in place – there are bits where there are good reasons for you not to run or cycle – but please read and observe what signs there are. It’s an amazing environment – just enjoy it slowly, and peacefully.
And finally. Some of you who are very old may remember there once was a young actor called Ellis Jones who sometimes appeared on the TV. I just came across a blog-site with the encouraging by-line of “Character Actors Who Are Still With Us”. Still with you folks, living and thriving in the Wetlands…
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