Great Moments in the Theatre
PRE-WORLD WAR II YEARS
Today I have read the most amazing book, ‘Great Moments in the Theatre’ written by the famous theatrical critic Benedict Nightingale. The detail, research and history from 458 BC through to 2009 that he has put into this wonderful book makes it a fantastic history of Great Moments in the Theatre.
Well, it started me thinking and, in my own very small way, of remembering moments that, whether they were great or funny, terrible or otherwise, I recall and have seen in the Theatre. By that I mean every show, and believe me it was all a very long time ago.
The Alexandra Theatre, Stoke Newington, London
As you may have read elsewhere in my blog, my theatre experience began at a very early age, when my mother used to take me to the Alexandra Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. N.16. It had opened on the 27 December 1897 and this was around 1937.
Every Thursday, direct from school, she would collect me and we would either go to the cinema or the theatre. If it was the theatre, we would go home first so I could have my tea and wash and brush up. The cinema was a different matter and she would bring sandwiches and fruit, a flask of tea and a wet flannel for my hands, and we would picnic in the cinema whilst the film was on. Remember, they had double features in those days and sometimes also variety acts, so it could be a good three hours, and we enjoyed every moment of it. She would also bring a torch so I could see that the bananas didn’t have any bruises on them. I wouldn’t eat a banana if there was a blemish on it. Talk about being bloody difficult! I must have been a real right pain in the arse! But she loved me. I was her only child.
Mr. Noel Coward “The Master”
Well, to get back to the point, The Alexandra Theatre was the first theatre that I really got to know and certain moments have stayed with me over the years. I must have seen quite a few plays there because they usually had a repertory season there quite frequently, but the one play that stays in my mind is “Private Lives” by Noel Coward. The balcony scene in particular will stay in my mind forever. I have no idea who the actors were, they must have been part of a repertory company who were changing plays every week, but that wonderful scene with the music ‘Someday I’ll Find You’ playing in the background somehow became magic. Yes, the music, the mood, the comedy, it was magical! This wonderful comedy has continued to play continuously over the years. The latest I think stars that wonderfully talented Kim Cattrall and Paul Cross.
The balcony scene in particular will stay in my mind forever
Sometimes they had plays that were for “Adults Only.” That was a no, no for me as I was underage, so then it would be off to the cinema for a week or two. At Christmas time at the Alexandra Theatre there was always a pantomime, but I don’t really remember them very much.
Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, from a magical moment to an awful moment, I saw Mr. Tod Slaughter, the last of the Actor Theatre Managers. He was known as the “Barnstormer’s Barnstormer”. He must have invented the word ‘camp,’ with all his eye rolling, hand wringing, his evil gleeful looks and raised eyebrows, giggling maniacally and grunting and groaning, which he did continuously. He was so bad and for all the wrong reasons, but the audiences loved him and joined in with the booing and hissing. There was no one like him! He was bursting with ‘over the top’ melodrama!.
Mr. Tod Slaughter drawing you into his web
He was known for his “Maria Martin or Murder in the Red Barn” and “Sweeney Tod the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” but this time at the Alexandra Theatre he was appearing in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” played in the manner of a Victorian Stage Play. Truthfully, he really was at the very end of his career and it really is unfair to criticize, but the whole production was very, very tatty. The backcloths shook every time somebody walked behind them backstage and everything that was onstage was on its last legs or falling apart. When, as Dr. Jekyll, he took the chemical potion that changed him, he would drop behind a settee that was centre stage and gurgle and scream and finally arise looking no different at all except his hair was all standing up as if he’d put his hand in a light plug. All the time there were titters and giggles from the small audience that was there. It was just impossible to keep a straight face. He thundered around the stage shouting and killing the cast left right and centre. In one street scene, Mr. Hyde is accosted by a street walker played by his wife, a very old Jenny Lynn who looked like she was the oldest prostitute in the business. Her line was, “Hello duckie, fancy a little bit of fun?” That brought the house down. I think someone in the audience yelled out, “Not with you luv! You must be joking?” The laughter seemed to go on forever. Mr.Tod Slaughter was not amused.
The sets were not like in the shot above and neither was the “young” lady. The show I saw was tatty and falling apart, but it was unintentionally very funny.
Sometime there would be variety shows, but the only acts I remember were the magic ones, and those I don’t recall too clearly. The magic bug hadn’t really got hold of me at that time.
During the war years the Alexandra Theatre opened and closed spasmodically, according to how bad the Air Raids were, They would open with either repertory theatre or variety shows.
In October 1950, it closed its doors for the final time and after lying derelict and unused for many years was demolished in 1960. A tower block of council flats named Alexandra Court was built on the site.
P.S. I made my first professional appearance as an actor at the Alexandra Theatre in the late 40s in a play called “Street Scene” by Elmer Rice. ‘I was terrible!’ “What goes around comes around!” Tod Slaughter must have laughed himself hoarse!
When War broke out I was evacuated with my mother to Basingstoke (Ugh!). We stayed there for about 9 months, which was enough, before we returned to London, where we lived for the rest of the War and the bombing. During my time in Basingstoke I won a scholarship to a grammar school. On returning to London, however, I found that all of the grammar schools had been evacuated far away from the capital, and the only sort of grammar-type of school that was operating was a secondary school in East London called Parmiters Secondary. one in the north, one in the south, one in the west, and Parmiters in the east.
Piccadilly Circus Wartime 1941
Well, Parmiters it was! When I went with my father to the school to meet the headmaster, one of the boys asked me whether I played football and like an idiot I said yes. So my father togs me out in the full kit including shin guards, boots, etc. BUT, he forgot to tell me how to play the bloody game or what I was supposed to do. Every week on a Thursday afternoon we would have to take a bus straight after lessons to somewhere in the back of beyond. It would take an hour to get there, so we would eat our lunchtime sandwiches on the bus. Then we would have to freeze our balls off playing football, or no frozen balls if it was summer and we were playing cricket. The football team soon sussed out that I was useless because, truthfully, I hadn’t a clue. So I, with quite a few other idiots, were told that if we weren’t in the football or cricket team we would have to do gardening – planting and digging up potatoes, etc. in the freezing cold – for the canteen in the school. It was definitely not for me!
With a little cajoling, my mother gave me a note which said that I had to attend the Dental Hospital for my teeth (which were beautiful) every Thursday afternoon until further notice. I was off the leash! No more football, cricket or gardening! I breathed a great sigh of relief. So every Thursday afternoon I would catch a No.8 bus from Bethnal Green that would take me to Tottenham Court Road and I had the West End at my feet and I loved it. I used to get a child’s fare, which was pennies, and I would spend my time exploring all of the West End and, when I wanted to, going to see every Thursday theatre matinee that was on.
Margaret Rutherford, Kay Hammond and Fay Compton in “Blithe Spirit”
That was how I came to see the original “Blithe Spirit” at the Duchess Theatre in 1941. I saw the original artistes, Margaret Rutherford, Kay Hammond and Fay Compton, and I was enthralled by it all. In all the turbulence of what was going on with the War and the bombing, this frothy, light, amusing comedy was a tonic for everyone who saw it. I didn’t just see it once, I saw it 4 timesover a period of about 3 years, and always with a different cast. The play just ran and ran. The Germans at that time were raining bombs on London, but somehow we just seemed to get used to it. Life went on. It was the shrapnel from our anti– aircraft guns that was the most dangerous. You just had to be so careful of that.
By the side of the proscenium arch in the theatres there would always be a box with a red light that would light up if there was an air raid warning and the audience could either leave and go to an air raidshelter or stay and watch the play, which would continue without interruption. Nobody ever left, unless it was a dire emergency directly overhead. When the All Clear sounded a green light would come on.
When I went to see Blithe Spirit, I would sit in the dress circle. If I could run to it, I would sit in my seat and during one of the two intervals and have a pot of tea and a sandwich, which would be served by one of the usherettes. I have no idea how much the tickets were or what the tea cost, but they had to havebeen cheap otherwise I couldn’t have afford to go there because the most I had at one time was about 5 shillings.
Blithe Spirit has stayed with me all these years, and now I am happy to say that I am going to see the wonderful Angela Lansbury at the Gielgud Theatre in London on the 2nd of June, which will be her last week, and I think a fitting conclusion to the wonderful memories that I have of Blithe Spirit.
Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati
N.B. I had the pleasure of seeing Angela Lansbury on Broadway in Mame, and she was sensational. A year later, I went to her last night in the Musical and it was a though I had seen her performance 2 nights running. That’s how consummate a performer she is. She is perfection!
Well I finally got to see Angela Lansbury in “Blithe Spirit”, I am in no way knocking the fabulous Angel Lansbury because I adore her, but I was a little disappointed.
It is over 50 years, since I saw the original ‘Blithe Spirit’ so one’s mind in time is apt to glamorise the original concept of Margaret Rutherford in the role of Madame Arcarti. Maybe it was because Rutherford was heavier in the role. I just don’t mean weight wise, I just don’t know. This was during WW11.
I really blame the direction by Michael Blakemore, it was just a little too light for my liking. But then I’m inclined to think that if there is a laugh line it really has to hit you between the eyes and then with a bit of luck it can turn into a belly laugh. But then it’s just the ‘ham’ in me, anything for a laugh
But all in all, the show was good and Angela Lansbury’s dance into her trance was worth the price of the ticket alone, and I am absolutely thrilled that I was lucky enough to see the famed Angela Lansbury once again.*
‘THE WORLD WAR II YEARS AND BEYOND’
N.B. “Please dear readers, forgive the quality of some of the photographs in this sequence. They are the best I can find and after all like me they are very old. 70 years to be precise.”
In 1942 I became a fan of the Ballet through a friend of mine who had just left school to become articled to an accountant in the West End of London. He introduced me to the world of the ballet. He was a classical music and ballet nut. Because of his job in the West End he was able to put out stools for the gallery at the New Theatre in St. Martins Lane in London whenever he was so inclined. That was where the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company would play a season or two every year in between touring round England. They would alternate between the Old Vic Company and the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, so the three different companies were in residence there whenever they were in London. The rest of the year they would tour, bringing happiness and joy to war-torn England. The ticket for a gallery stool cost 6 pence and I think around 50 tickets were sold daily, which meant that if you had a stool ticket then you were guaranteed a seat in the gallery of the theatre. I think that the gallery admittance was 2/6 pence. So when the gallery doors opened the stools would go flying and you paid your money at the gallery entrance and rushed like crazy up the stairs to grab the closest seats in the front row of the gallery. We were all Balletomanes. Really, I think that was the beginning of the Gallery First Nighters’ Club that carried a lot of sway in the Theatre in those days.
Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn
Hanging there up in the Gods, we anxiously waited with bated breath the appearance of the conductor. This was usually Constance Lambert who had his own following of fans, but my favourites were the performers, Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann.Then the lights would dim and the overture to whichever ballet which was being performed would begin. It was all so magical and to this day I still love the Ballet.
I saw “Swan Lake,” “Coppelia,” “Les Sylphides,” “Facade,” Sleeping Beauty,” “Nutcracker,” “Dante Sonata,” “Giselle” and many more. You name it, I saw it, their complete repertoire, but two ballets which stood out in my mind for drama and excitement were “The Rakes Progress” and “Hamlet.” “The Rakes progress” was choreography by Ninette de Valois, who was the Artistic Director for the Sadlers Wells Ballet Company through the whole of World War II. The music was composed by Gavin Gordon and danced by Helpmann and Fonteyn. It was based on a series of pictures by the painter William Hogarth which he called “A Rakes Progress”. The whole production was quite brilliant.
Helpmann in “The Rakes Progress”
Helpmann in “The Rakes Progress”
The other production was “Hamlet,” choreographed by Robert Helpmann, who also did the libretto, to the music of Tchaikovsky’s “Fantasy Overture.” Although based on the original Shakespearean tragedy, it doesn’t retell the plot from start to finish. It instead portrays the dying Hamlet reliving crucial moments of his life. The whole story was seen through the mind of the dying Hamlet. It was a work of genius and brilliantly performed by Helpmann and Fonteyn. A truly great moment in the Theatre.
Helpmann as Hamlet with the skull of Yorick
Helpmann as Hamlet and Margot Fonteyn as Ophelia.
On the lighter side, providing great, great moments over the years, was Intimate Revue. it provided the laughter that was needed so badly in this time of war. With its double entendres and frothy songs, risqué jokes, blackout sketches and whimsical repartee, it was a tonic that was enjoyed by all and sundry, and in those days we needed it. The two great stars of the risqué repartee were Hermione Gingold and Hermione Baddley, who in 1941 were appearing in “Rise Above It” at the Comedy Theatre, which I was lucky enough to see. The more successful the show became, the bigger the rivalry became between Gingold and Baddley, until by the end of the run they swore they would never work together again. Maybe it was their joint penchant for the younger male that didn’t help.
“Rise Above It” opened on June 5, 1941 at the Comedy Theatre. It went into a second edition in December, 1941. In 1942 Baddley then went on to greener and greater roles in the legitimate theatre and films, whilst Gingold carried on in her favorite métier, revue.
Gingold in pensive mood.
Hermione Gingold, now working solo,from Baddley, appeared in “Sky High” at the Pheonix Theatre in June 10, 1942. La Gingold, as she became known, had undergone a vocal crisis sometime in the 1930s. She had hitherto described herself as a ‘soprano,’ but nodules on her vocal chords brought a drastic drop in her pitch, about which she once commented, “One morning it was a Mozart ‘Aria’ and the next ‘Old Man River’.” One critic described her voice as “Powdered glass in deep syrup.” Another said,”To watch Miss Gingold’s tongue roll around a familiar name or word and then quietly drop it off with the mud sticking on, is to watch art raising a foible to the stature of a humor.” “No actress commands a more purposeful leer; and in nobody’s mouth do vowels more acidly curdle.” She could make quite the simplest word by the time she had finished with it sound obscene!
Hermione in whimsical mood
Then came her Tour de Force as a solo comedienne when she opened on June 10, 1943 at the Ambassadors Theatre in “Sweet and Low.” Hermione took the West End by storm in this sharp witted revue of the War Years. Hermione wrote two of her own sketches.
She followed up this success with “Sweeter and Lower,” which opened on February 17, 1944. This successor played to packed houses for two years, through to the end of the war, and earned Hermione the titles of “The Duchess” and The Queen of Comedy.”
Hermione Gingold and Henry Kendall in “Sweeter and Lower”
“Sweetest and Lowest” opened on May 9, 1946 at the Ambassadors Theatre and was the conclusion of the three “Sweet” revues.
“Slings and Arrows” opened on November 17, 1948, at the Comedy Theatre. Hermione was the co-author of the revue.
The piece de resistance came when producers Charles Russell and Lance Hamilton persuaded Hermione Gingold and Hermione Baddley to work together again in a Noel Coward double-bill of his plays “Fumed Oak” and “Fallen Angels.” The two bitter rivals were going to work together again! Hermione Baddeley gladly accepted but Hermione Gingold took a lot more persuading.
As neither would take second billing, programmes were printed with the photos of one Hermione right-side-up and the other upside down, thus sharing 50-50 billing on posters, programmes, etc. etc. as shown.
In September 1948 Charles Russell and Lance Hamilton set up a management company to produce a touring revival of Noel Coward’s prewar hit of “Fallen Angels” as a two hander for Gingold and Baddeley playing a pair of jilted women taking uproarious refuge in drink. Coward was not happy with the idea as it was not to his taste or liking of the cast. The two Hermiones upstaged each other mercilessly, introducing all sorts of business, some of it almost obscene, which held up the action, making Coward furious.
“I’ve never yet in my long experience in the Theatre, seen a more vulgar, silly, unfunny, disgraceful performance,” he wrote in his diary.
He demanded the London opening be cancelled – until Russell pointed out that it would cost him £9,000 to get out of the contract. “Fallen Angels” went on to run for nine months at the Ambassadors Theatre where it was an enormous financial success, much longer than the original version had ever run before. In those days, if a show ran for three months it was a hit! Coward confided in his diary, “LIVID.” But he took the money.
Still on the lighter side, in 1942 Cole Porter’s “Dubarry was a Lady” opened at His Majesty’s Theatre. The leading lady was Frances Day, a beauty from America who lived and worked in England through the whole of World War II. The show was good, but she was stunning, glamorous, vivacious, a real star. When she was in her 60’s, Frances Day still looked stunning; and she would talk about Frances Day as though she was her mother; and she was her daughter Frankie; and believe me she got away with it! That is ‘Show Business’!
Frances Day in “Dubarry was a Lady”
Dubarry was a Lady
THE OLD VIC COMPANY
Throughout the war Tyrone Guthrie had striven to keep the Old Vic Company going, even after German bombing in 1942 left the Theatre a near ruin. By 1944, with the tide of war turning, Guthrie felt it time to re-establish the company in a London base, and invited Ralph Richardson to head it. Richardson made two stipulations; first, as he was unwilling to seek his own release from the forces, the governing board of the Old Vic should explain to the authorities why it should be granted; secondly that he should share the acting and management in a triumvirate. Initially he proposed John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier as his colleagues, but the former declined, saying, It would be a disaster, “You would have to spend your whole time as referee between Larry and me.” It was finally agreed that the third member would be stage director John Burrell. The Old Vic governors approached the Royal Navy to secure the release of Richardson and Olivier. The Sea Lords consented, with, as Olivier put it, “a speediness and lack of reluctance which was positively hurtful!”
The Old Vic Theatre bombed 1942.
A small troupe toured the provinces, with Sybil Thorndike at its head.
Sybil Thorndike and young actress.
The triumvirate secured the New Theatre for their first season and recruited a company. Sybil Thorndike was joined by, among others, Harcourt Williams, Joyce Redman and Margaret Leighton. It was agreed to open with a repertory of four plays: Peer Gynt, Arms and the Man, Richard III and Uncle Vanya. ( I was lucky enough to see each production – from the gallery, of course!). The first three productions met with acclaim from reviewers and audiences, but Uncle Vanya had a mixed reception.
Ralph Richardson as Falstaff
In 1945, when I was 15, I saw the second season, which featured two double-bills. The first consisted of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Olivier played the warrior Hotspur in the first and the doddering Justice Shallow in the second. He received good notices, but by general consent the evening belonged to Richardson as Falstaff. Agate wrote, “He had everything the part wants- the exuberance, the mischief, the gusto……Here is something better than virtuosity in character-acting- the spirit of the part shining through the actor.” In the second double bill it was Olivier who dominated, in the title roles of “Oedipus Rex” and “The Critic.”
Laurence Olivier as Oedipus Rex
Richardson took the supporting role of Tiresias the blind prophet or seer, who knows that the terrible prophecy of Oedipus has already come true. He leaves Oedipus with a riddle that implies, plainly enough for the audience to understand, that Oedipus has killed his own father and married his mother. The young boy who led the blind Tiresias on stage was called Ray Jackson.
Ray Jackson, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier in Oedipus Rex 1945.
Little did I know sitting in the gallery that night, that the little boy Ray Jackson would become my life partner and lover for 40 years until his death in 1989. That really when I think about it, had to be “The Greatest Moment for me in the Theatre”.