19th May 2009, Art Workers' Guild
THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
It was in 1957 that Harold Macmillan, the new Conservative Prime Minister, told us 'You've never had it so good'. In January 1958 I could hardly disagree, even if like most of my generation I had a healthy dislike for a Tory administration that had been in power for far too long and looked like staying longer (as it did). It was a time when resistance among the young to 'The Establishment' was at its height. Starting with the arrival of novelists like Kingsley Amis (whose 1954 Lucky Jim became a film in 1957), it produced works like Colin Wilson's The Outsider in 1956 and gained for its proponents the group title of Angry Young Men when John Osborne's Look Back in Anger brought theatre into the picture in 1956. That was the year when Britain's last aspirations as an imperial power (and those of France) were buried in the sands of Suez, while the USSR confirmed its own imperial position in the streets of Budapest. I'm here to suggest that while 1958 was politically quieter (although it did see the start of both the European Union and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), theatrically it was far more significant.
I was in my last year at school, with a place at Cambridge assured. With my two fellow members of the King's College School classical sixth, who had also won Oxbridge places, I went to see the headmaster: since we had our places, could we leave the school early? That way we could earn some money in order to take an educational trip to Greece. For some reason the head wanted us to stay, and came up with a travel scholarship of £60 for each of us on the condition that we finished the school year. We accepted very happily - that £60 was enough to take us on a classical expedition for six weeks in the summer.
Meanwhile, we could enjoy ourselves. By day our tutors continued to ply us with mind-broadening material that would prove very useful in our university classical studies. By night I could indulge my passion for theatre. I was helped in this by the fact that my then girlfriend had left school to train as a radiographer at Charing Cross Hospital, which in those days really was at Charing Cross. Most days, a notice would appear on the Charing Cross notice board asking whether any staff were interested in free tickets for West End shows that needed an audience. We took full advantage.
Pretentious little so-and-so that I was (no change there, then?) I had the idea of keeping a kind of diary in which I would record my reactions to the plays and films I saw.
I still have the big red King's College School exercise book (they were intended for writing up science experiments, actually) in which I recorded my imperishable thoughts. I fear they were pretty perishable, but what is interesting about this slim volume - and I hope worth your attention this evening - is the wealth of good theatre of all kinds that I was privileged to see.
My parents had a big influence on my theatregoing. In the school holidays we would often queue for the stools which gave us the right to be first into West End balconies and galleries - in 1954, at fourteen, I was offering to explain them the naughty bits in Cabaret's predecessor, I Am a Canera.
Even more regular were our visits to weekly rep at nearby Richmond, where you could get two seats for the price of one on the opening Monday night, and occasionally Wimbledon. By 1958, when the repertory movement celebrated its golden jubilee (as did the West End Managers, as it happens), old style weekly rep was in full retreat, although nearly forty companies still survived. My diary records two visits to Richmond and Wimbledon, offering both ends of the spectrum.
In May Richmond played Agatha Christie's Towards Zero - 'Terrible ... oh Good Lord no no no no no!' (in spite of my protestations, by the end of the year Christie had two other thrillers running in the West End alongside the inevitable Mousetrap, which was in its seventh year). My reaction to The Late Edwina Black in September was no better - terrible, again, with lousy acting 'from a half-hearted cast who should have known better.' Wimbledon bravely tackled Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. I'd admired its original cast the previous year, when it was the first Australian play ever to be seen in the West End, and was pleasantly surprised by the efforts of the Peter Haddon Company. The play itself? 'A really great play ... which will survive long after Terence Rattigan is forgotten.'
If weekly rep was on the way out, 1958 was an important year for what Hazel Vincent Wallace wanted to rename Regional Rep. The Belgrade opened its doors with a Vivian Ellis musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest, followed later by Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley, the first play in his trilogy. It was the first new theatre to be built in Britain since the war, with promises from Nottingham and Guildford to follow Coventry's example, not to mention the Mermaid in The City. Meadow Players, who took on the Oxford Playhouse in 1956, were thriving, with their bawdy Lysistrata transferring first to the Royal Court and later to the Duke of York's, where I saw it in March. Joan Greenwood had taken over the lead role from Constance Cummings, who had left to join John Clements and Kay Hammond in Benn Levy's mock-classical comedy The Rape of the Belt, which I took in later in the year. I thought Lysistrata would not have got past the censor if it were a new play: 'Phallic humour is the oldest and the richest in the world, and here it was at its richest.'
At this time the Arts Council had just under a million pounds a year to distribute to the arts, two thirds of it going to opera and ballet. Drama got just over a tenth of the budget, most of it to support 29 resident theatre companies in England and Scotland, with £3,500 allocated specifically to 'promoting the writing and performance of new plays'.
The other great institution in my theatrical education was RADA, again thanks to my parents. They had discovered that you could go for free, on subscription, to see the students perform at their Vanbrugh theatre, and RADA's then principal, John Fernald, introduced me to a wide range of world theatre, including my first sight of Chekhov and Brecht. Apart from a Candida directed by Fernald himself, the 1958 programme was not as challenging as usual, though I did enjoy David Giles' production of a play about King Arthur's court by John Coates called Bid Time Return. Earlier RADA alumni that I had seen at the Vanbrugh were making good progress in1958, Peter O'Toole giving his Hamlet in Bristol and Albert Finney his Macbeth in Birmingham.
Another formative influence was the Old Vic, where in 1958 Michael Benthall's company reached the end of their five-year Folio plan to stage all of Shakespeare. At the beginning of the year I saw Paul Rogers give his Lear, my first: 'It is too easy to be dissatisfied with one's first look at a production of Lear,' I wrote. 'You have nothing with which to compare it, except the general belief that the king himself is an unplayable part. Paul Rogers made a great attempt at the impossible, however, even if he was a somewhat sprightly eighty.' On the whole I found Douglas Seale's production satisfying, especially Barbara Jefford and Coral Browne, 'brilliantly cruel' as Regan and Goneril. In March I caught up with John Neville's Hamlet, which had opened the year before. Having already seen Olivier (on film) and Scofield (in Peter Brook's uncut version), I considered myself more at home, and found this Michael Benthall version 'swift, youthful and a masterpiece of teamwork ... not a memorable Hamlet, but an efficient one.' I'm afraid I was not impressed by one Old Vic debut: 'Judi Dench's Ophelia did not really appeal to me - it had too much of the 'bright young thing' in it.' The Hamlet of 1958, which I did not see, was Glen Byam Shaw's version at Stratford, with Michael Redgrave leading a line-up that makes the mouth water: Googie Withers as Gertrude, Mark Dignam Claudius, Dorothy Tutin Ophelia, and batting all the way down the order in a company that included Eileen Atkins, Roy Dotrice, Julian Glover, Ian Holm and Edward Woodward.
The first West End visit recorded in the Red Book is to Share My Lettuce in January. Bamber Gascoigne's student revue had been snapped up by the young producer Michael Codron, and given a professional cast led ('dominated', according to my report, by Kenneth Williams and featuring Maggie Smith.) It had opened at the Lyric, Hammersmith and was about to transfer to the Garrick from the Comedy, where I saw it, and went on to run for over 300 performances.
I was a great fan of revue, from the knockabout of the Crazy Gang (who had been in permanent residence sine 1947 at the Victoria Palace) to the gentler, topical wit of the intimate shows that were then very popular. Gascoigne's show owed something to the mime element introduced a couple of years earlier by John Cranko in his Cranks, but 'elsewhere it followed strongly in the tradition of English revue.' Later in the same month I had 'an excellent evening' at one such, For Amusement Only, which was nearing the end of a long run. So, as it turned out, was intimate revue, although it didn't breathe its last until the satire boom of the early sixties. Peter Myers and Ronnie Cass had another effort, For Adults Only, which I saw later in the year and found 'in general, very poor', in spite of some show-saving spots from Miriam Karlin.
More of the writing on revue's wall came from Flanders and Swann, whom I saw a year into their long run at the Fortune with At the Drop of a Hat. With a wheelchair, a piano and an electric lamp as their only props, they brought 'the apparent spontaneity which comes from careful rehearsal and an excellent sense of timing.' I should also have remarked on their ability to retain that appearance after several hundred performances.
If revue was on the way out, variety was in an even worse state, in spite of the rosy view of the Stage's Year Book, which talked of the year as one when 'a start was made to rebuild upon the rubble of a crumbled past.' Leslie MacDonnell joined Prince Littler to run the Moss Empires circuit, and one of his first moves was to put and end to the tawdry strip shows that characterised fifties variety (even if they had been a treat for spotty adolescents like myself). There were sparks of life, particularly in the year's pantomimes, which included Tommy Steele in Rodgers and Hammerstein's version of Cinderella at the Coliseum. The Talk of the Town theatre restaurant opened - dinner-dancing and two shows for 42 shillings and sixpence all in - but rather more variety theatres closed.
Musical theatre in London in 1958 was at a moment of transition. Apart from the Cinderella, there were little more than a dozen musicals to be seen in the whole year. Long runs were a rarity - the 1960 edition of Who's Who in the Theatre lists only 35 London shows that had ever run for more than a thousand performances. In the top four were those exemplars from 1954 of lightweight English charm, Salad Days and The Boy Friend, both still running in 1958, and accompanied at that point by Julian Slade's second, Free As Air. Early in the year, Jule Styne's Bells Are Ringing and Frank Loesser's Where's Charley (with Norman Wisdom) were the only representatives of the American musical, to be joined at the end of April by the long-awaited My Fair Lady. The LP had been in circulation ever since its Broadway opening two years earlier, so that we were all familiar with the songs. The excitement in London was still high, particularly since the Broadway leads had all arrived at Drury Lane, and I'm surprised to find that 'I did not get the same thrill of pleasure that Salad Days and Free As Air gave me, but rather the same feeling of "what was all that about?" which The Boy Friend evoked. My theory is that critics and public alike have been waiting so long for a spectacular, tuneful and lavish American musical in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition that they seized on this as the nearest approach - and it comes very near, I admit. But it's just not worth all the fuss.' My least favourite member of the cast was Julie Andrews - 'what a waste, for the sake of a pretty face and a pleasant voice.' (Mind you, I was even less happy with Audrey Hepburn in the film ... ) Shortly afterwards I saw Joshua Logan's film of South Pacific, which I described as 'better by a long chalk than My Fair Lady.'
Other English musicals that year did not fare too well: Sandy Wilson's Valmouth did not get beyond the Lyric Hammersmith until the following year, and Norman Newell's Mr Venus, with Frankie Howerd in the lead and a book by Ray Galton and Johnny Speight, flopped terribly. But there was one British musical which did show promise. Expresso Bongo opened a week before My Fair Lady, and was of course overshadowed by it. I loved it: 'This is news; a sophisticated, satirical, cynical musical - and British. Well written [a Wolf Mankowitz book with music and lyrics by the tested team of Heneker/More/Norman], acted and directed [William Chapppell], it is a red-hot onslaught on the 'rat race' of modern pop music. What makes the satire so pointed is that the "pops" which have us rolling in the aisles could so easily be the real thing.' [As indeed they became, when young Cliff Richard, who had his first hit in 1958, took the lead in the subsequent film].
This was the show in which Paul Scofield 'did an Olivier'. Sir Laurence had joined the English Stage Company in 1957 to play the lead in John Osborne's The Entertainer, and here was Peter Brook's Hamlet as a rascally agent. He 'gives a sparkling performance and sings pleasantly.' Also in the cast were Millicent Martin, making her grown-up debut in the West End, as was a member of the chorus, Susan Hampshire.
Peter Brook himself took on a musical that year, and might have changed the face of the genre. You don't hear a lot about French musicals when the histories are written, until we get to Boublil and Schoenberg, although I'll continue to put in a good word for Michel Legrand whenever you ask me. Here in 1958 was Marguerite Monnot, writing the tunes to a book by Alexandre Breffort, cleverly Anglicised by that Heneker/More/Norman team. 'How can a play based entirely on the lives of prostitutes and their pimps be charming, simple and completely suitable for any audience?' I rather primly asked. 'In an energetic, imaginative production, Peter Brook has managed to put across a rose-coloured picture of the Paris vice quarter as deeply steeped in French atmosphere as Times Square in Guys and Dolls is in American. The tunes are charming and brash by turns, witty or sentimental, delightfully varied. The performances of Keith Michell and Clive Revill are full of whimsy, and Elizabeth Seal - only girl in a largish cast - stands out.' If Irma had had any successors, we might be taking the French musical more seriously even now.
A musical curiosity at the time, which had only a brief stay at the Adelphi in May before it was pulled as a result of a dispute over rights, was what the Stage Year Book describes as a 'Negro musical comedy'. It was Langston Hughes's Simply Heavenly, with music by David Martin, whose true worth was confirmed in a recent Young Vic revival. I loved its noisy, blaring sound, its simple plot: 'Music is jazzy, bluesy, full of go, making up in zippy dancing for what it lacks in originality of lyric. Bertice Reading, flopping about in sack dresses and rolling her eyes, is the hit of the show.' Not long afterwards, in August, the idea of racial harmony in Britain took a serious knock with the Notting Hill race riots.
At the end of the year, our entire perception of what the musical could do was changed once and for all by the arrival of West Side Story - but I didn't get to see it until the following year, so no comment here except to say that my girlfriend and I thought it the best musical ever.
This is probably the point at which to note the quality of foreign visitors to London at that time. Much has been made of the impact of the Berliner Ensemble in 1956. I didn't see them, nor did I get to see any of the remarkable number of overseas theatre companies who arrived in 1958. Germany sent the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus company with Schiller, Hauptmann and Lessing; the Moscow Arts Theatre came with a couple of Chekhovs; the People's Republic of China sent a theatre and dance company; the Prince's and Sadler's Wells welcomed an almost continuous stream of visitors, including Poles, Rumanians, Cossacks, Ukrainians, even the Chamber Opera of Buenos Aires. In June the Piccolo theatre of Milan brought Giorgio Strehler's landmark production of Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, which I still haven't seen although it is touring to this day.
Thanks to the Charing Cross Hospital Radiography School, I did at least see the International Ballet of the Marquis de Cuevas, who brought no fewer than five ballets to the Coliseum in one full October evening. 'Strangely enough the one ballet which I knew, Les Sylphides, was the most arty and least interesting.' The climax was Massine's Gaieté Parisienne, 'A work of immense gusto and whirl, full of witty characterisation, this was really well done.' I still remember with embarrassment another Charing Cross special, a visit to Rigoletto at Covent Garden. The invitation came too late for me to change, and I watched the whole performance from the fifth row of the stalls in my shabby raincoat, since to reveal the houndstooth sports jacket I was wearing underneath it would have marked me out even more from the evening dress around me. 'I was thrilled by the music and the colour and that was quite enough. Only later do you niggle, and only now can I criticise the posturing and grimacing that got away as acting, the inaudible words of the chorus, the slightly untuned tinge of the orchestra and the terribly gooey plot.'
So, what about straight theatre?
1958, according to the Stage's chief critic, RB Marriott, writing his round-up in the Year Book, was 'A Year for New Playwrights': 'Not for a very long time,' he wrote, ' have so many new playwrights of unusual interest been produced in one season.' His list of new writers presented for the first time contained John Mortimer, N F Simpson, Shelagh Delaney, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Stuart Holroyd, Jeremy Kingston (yes, that Jeremy Kingston) and Peter Shaffer - not a bad haul. The remit of the English Stage Company to produce writers' theatre was being fulfilled at last, although in a far wider spread than simply at the Royal Court. Willis Hall's play, which arrived there the following year as The Long and the Short and the Tall, made two appearances under different names in 1958: Peter Dews directed a group of fellow Oxford undergraduates (including future directors Adrian Brine, Michael Simpson and Patrick Garland) in a version called The Disciplines of War on the Edinburgh Fringe, with Val May directing a professional version under the title Boys, It's All Hell in Nottingham a week later.
The Edinburgh Fringe was already an institution, but the London Fringe was still a decade away. There was diminishing activity in the little club theatres that were its predecessors, with only the Hovenden really keeping busy under its director, Valerie of that name. There was no shortage of new writers, only of try-out venues: the Obsever ran a playwriting competition that attracted over two thousand entries, with Errol John's winner, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, opening at the Court at the end of the year.
One new West End play that still sticks in my memory was Roseland, which I saw at the St Martin's in February. I was one of the few, since it closed after four performances, having been booed on its first night. Its author, Anthony Pelissier, who happened to be the son of Fay Compton, also directed what was, I believe, his only stage play, although he was responsible for several successful film scripts. By my account, Roseland did not deserve its poor reception: 'Unfortunately, the author seems to have originally intended this to be a musical, and, being loth to give up the idea, he gave us snatches of songs and a jazz background for much of the play - irrelevant but pleasant. The play was not suited to it's medium, that's the point. It would be excellent on television or filmed - a British answer to Twelve Angry Men or similar realistic Americana.'
Of course I couldn't see every new play of 1958, and only reached one or two of the big hits (Five Finger Exercise, The Hostage) the following year. But I could keep up: as a not too Angry Young Man I followed Jimmy Porter's Sunday morning ritual of reading the two 'thick' Sundays, devouring Kenneth Tynan's Observer column and listening to what Penelope Gilliat memorably described as 'the sound of Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree' in the Sunday Times. I was also an ardent reader of Plays and Players, two of whose sometime contributors, Martin Esslin and John Russell Taylor, produced the first guidebooks to the new drama in Theatre of the Absurd and Anger and After. These, however, were not to appear until 1962 and 1963 respectively.
In June 1958, and in quick succession, I saw a number of shows that mark the new writing trends of the time: angry, absurd and just plain good.
Of [Epitaph for] George Dillon, which had transferred to the Comedy from the Royal Court, I wrote, in full:
'Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. Here we have it. Another play to think about. More excellent observation, keen satire combined with a sympathetic grasp of feeling. Blimey, this was good. Not as good as Look Back in Anger by a long chalk, but up to The Entertainer, if not so bawdy. The central character battens himself on to a middle-class family - what beautiful character-drawing in the family, what observation in the language, even the house itself - and like the hero of Room at the Top gets success without happiness. But George Dillon's success is purely commercial. As an artist he seems a failure. A wonderful entertainer when he is in the mood, he is nevertheless an utter sod, tied up in self - like so many Angry Young Men. He lashes out bitterly at the family, the disgustingly boring and apathetic family that is, all the same, looking after him when he has nothing. And at the end we wonder, is not this family better than the egotistic George? The picture is sad and negative overall, despite some brilliantly funny scenes. There is the essential pathos of failure, and, in all, there is a brilliant and moving play. Beautifully acted [by Robert Stephens and the company] and directed [by William Gaskill, 'whoever he is'].
'But oh, this drama of despair - when will we find a play of hope for this generation?'
At the Royal Court, The Lesson joined Tony Richardson's already successful revival of Ionesco's The Chairs. I wrote more about this double bill than any other experience in the Red Book. Here is some of it:
[The Chairs] 'I once called Ionesco's work anti-theatre, but this it certainly is not. His characters are deep, sympathetic, intensely human; his plays move from climax to climax; they are based on conflict - this work is essentially of the theatre. Revolutionary, yes, but the one set of values it cannot dismiss is the values of the theatre. This is brilliant theatre (brilliantly put over, too, by the English Stage Company). It has the pathos and the slapstick of Chaplin, the surrealism of Dali and The Goons, the realism and social comment of Ibsen; an amazing blend of reality and that which is beyond reality, of inconsequence and meaning.' [The Lesson] 'Here was another side of Ionesco: again, the inconsequential blended with the real, but here with a touch of the macabre... The mad Professor is quite a tour de force, and Edgar Wreford did it excellently. ...
'Finally, the largest praise must be given to Joan Plowright, for the amazing versatility she showed in these two plays. If she were an earnest 'Method' actress, this would have made her schizophrenic. Her centenarian wife, chiding her husband for his lack of ambition, forms a miraculous contrast to her pouting adolescent complaining of the toothache. Wonderful, bravo Miss Plowright! (She's damned pretty, too).'
At the Garrick was another double bill, John Mortimer's The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? I was not happy with what I wrote about the plays, 'because I couldn't think straight while writing them', but they made quite an impression:
[Dock Brief] 'I heard this previously on radio, but it lost nothing on its second hearing - in fact I am tempted to predict that this will always be worth seeing or hearing. ... Mr Mortimer's treatment of the language shows a wonderful feeling for prose-poetry'
[Caroline] 'A penetrating study of humanity ... very funny, yet touching ... In John Mortimer I think we have a future classic of a playwright.'
After this star trio I saw a couple of representatives of the old West End. I'd already caught Ken Tynan's disdain for the unfortunate Terence Rattigan, as an earlier comment has shown. Variations on a Theme, directed by John Gielgud at the Globe, did nothing to restore my faith in him:
'Item: the theme is that of The Lady of the Camellias.
'Item: Camille is now Rose Fish, still consumptive and a tart in the most successful modern manner, the Rita Hayworth, Eva Bartok alimony way.
'Item: she is played excellently by Margaret Leighton.
'That's really all that's worth remembering. ... As Mr Rattigan was fool enough to put into the mouth of one of his characters, "This is all very clever, but does it mean anything?" '
Then in July at the Duke of York's came a typical thriller by Alec Coppel, better known for film scripts, The Joshua Tree, which I called 'artificial, slow-moving tripe, hammed appallingly by American "star" Anne Baxter.'
America, however, gave us many good things in 1958. Kenneth Tynan, reviewing the decade, remarked that 'the strongest and most unmistakable influence on our drama in the last ten years has been transatlantic.' Miller and Williams were immensely in vogue, but perhaps the most memorable of all the shows I saw that year came from their master, Eugene O'Neill. In March BBCTV - imagine it - had shown his Strange Interlude over two Sunday evenings, with Diane Cilento and William Sylvester (who later in the year had the misfortune to appear in The Joshua Tree). 'It must have been almost impossible on stage, but the possibilities of the 'inner voice' technique on television are so much greater.' Before that, Peter Wood's production of The Iceman Cometh had been a huge hit at the Arts, and was still selling out when I caught up with it at the Winter Garden in April. My review listed the entire cast, which included Michael Bryant, Tony Church, Patrick Magee, Toby Robertson and Prunella Scales, because 'they did brilliantly.' [I note that brilliant, excellent and wonderful are seriously over-used in the Red Book - ah, the enthusiasm of youth!]
'I just can't do justice to this wonderful play ... I can only call it a masterpiece, a classic of our time. But credit goes not merely to O'Neill but to his cast, who coped so magnificently with some very long, very difficult parts, and to Peter Wood's intelligent and sympathetic direction.'
Ian Bannen, the play's catalyst as Hickey, went on to play Jamie in the premiere of Long Day's Journey Into Night, first at the 1958 Edinburgh Festival and then at the Globe. (Another Edinburgh transfer was TS Eliot's The Elder Statesman, which had critics putting the last nail into the coffin of the English verse drama movement - though I myself had loved another BBCTV special, Edith Evans in Christopher Fry's The Dark Is Light Enough: 'Where Eliot disguises his verse as slightly strained conversation, the verse of Fry - the glorious poetry of his thought - shines through the disguised conversation.')
I'd like to digress from theatre for a moment to point out how valuable television was at that time to anyone's theatre education. The BBC's Sunday Play was not the only game in town - the newly arrived ITV stations had fine drama output of their own. Let me just list the BBC drama I saw in January alone, all of it performed live in glorious black and white:
John Neville in Henry V
Paul Rogers in The Cherry Orchard
Caspar Wrede and Michael Elliott directing Euripides' Women of Troy
Edith Evans in The Dark Is Light Enough
And it was not just classics. Look Back in Anger only took off in 1956 when a long excerpt was televised. The Birthday Party, after its swift demise in 1958, reached a huge television audience (including me: rather appropriately I watched it in Eastbourne) in 1959 and paved the way for the huge success of The Caretaker. In 1958 itself I saw Tony Hancock in Gogol's The Government Inspector, Frankie Howerd in Molière, and Brian Rix (direct from the Whitehall Theatre) in a Philip King farce.
Where was I? Oh yes, the Americans. The big Tennessee Williams opening of the year was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but there was also the UK premiere of Rose Tattoo in Liverpool, where Sam Wanamaker was mounting a fierce assault on the American repertoire, and a double bill of Something Unspoken and Suddenly Last Summer opened at the Arts. Arthur Miller's version of An Enemy of the People had its UK premiere in Lincoln, A Memory of Two Mondays in Nottingham.
Cat was directed by young Peter Hall at the Comedy, with another visiting American star, Kim Stanley in the lead, as the last production of the New Watergate Theatre Club, which had been set up as a ruse to get round the Lord Chamberlain's antipathy to homosexuality (Peter Brook had directed the original version of A View from the Bridge for the club in 1956). I felt that Cat was 'not on the same intellectual plane as Iceman.' ... 'Nevertheless, it had a fine tension, fine characters both in the writing and in the acting - though I had expected a more youthful, more sexy Maggie - and taut, understanding direction.'
The Red Book tails off towards the end of the year, because I had arrived in Cambridge. The classical tour that preceded my arrival was well worth the school's sixty quid, and included a couple of magic moments in the theatre of Herodes Atticus in Athens, with Alexis Minotis and Katina Paxinou lighting up Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (as the programme called it) and a Tiller girl chorus dancing to Manos Hadjidakis's great music in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae.
Life at Cambridge was too busy to spend much time on the Red Book. I have a note that I saw the Meadow Players' touring production of Waiting for Godot at the Arts, but the commentary is blank - probably because I didn't understand Beckett's tramps at all at the time. I did write up the Cambridge University Mummers' production without décor of Miller's All My Sons: 'The construction of the play was excellent, and what it said was well expressed by a most competent cast, who made costume and setting quite unnecessary by their intensity of creation.'
The Mummers were one of Cambridge's elite acting groups, run at the time by one John Tusa. I failed my audition for them. I rather fancied my chances as an actor, having given my Cassius in the KCS modern dress Julius Caesar in the summer, wearing a uniform borrowed from one of the masters in charge of the school's Combined Cadet Force. But I quickly found out how hot the competition was when I applied to join the ADC, the Amateur Dramatic Club.. In the year's Nursery Productions, the other hopefuls included Corin Redgrave, Geoffrey Reeves, John Fortune, David Frost and Ian McKellen. Still, I scraped in, and got a couple of walk-on parts in the term's big show, Tennessee Williams' Camino Real. And at the end of the year I was invited to do the same next term, in John Barton's Marlowe Society production of both parts of Henry IV. I was to stand quietly by as a cast of future stars went through their paces: Derek Jacobi as Hal, Ian McKellen as Justice Shallow, Clive Swift Falstaff, Corin Redgrave, Richard Cottrell, John Fortune, John Tydeman, Terrence Hardiman, Julian Curry, Michael Burrell, Eleanor Bron ...
Things got off to a poor start when I missed a rehearsal in order to play in London for the college second rugby team and thus get a free trip to a Twickenham international. John Barton was not at all amused ... but that's another story.
Ian Herbert in Conversation with Michael Billington (Nov 2007)
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