BOOK REVIEW / When dinosaurs ruled the stage
THE LOST SUMMER: THE HEYDAY OF THE WEST END THEATRE Charles Duff Nick Hern Books £18.99
Saturday 08 April 1995
Had Mr Duff been launching a full- scale defence of pre-1956 West End theatre, he might also have enlisted the names of Peter Ustinov, Dennis Cannan, Christopher Fry, William Douglas-Home, T S Eliot, Priestley, the Christies, McDougall and others: but I suspect that what he really wanted to write about was Banbury's long and honourable career. He might have wondered if the director`s profile was high enough for the book to sell and thought that a new evaluation of his chosen playwrights through their relationship with their director - who was also, in some cases, their producer - would be more beckoning.
Mr Duff amusingly charts his subject's reaction to being studied. From a noncommittal, "Well, I won't stop you," it "suddenly became far too over-excited. I was bombarded with suggestions; who to see; what to focus on, even what opinions to hold. . . I took to switching on my answer machine to monitor all calls. Then after one Banbury message - the longest I have ever received from anyone - I disconnected the telephone. Then the letters started. . ." Charles Duff is too young to have seen the first productions of most of the plays he discusses; but he is a professional director and a teacher of theatre history and he has clearly considered the texts he discusses thoroughly and sympathetically. He is not given to indiscriminate praise and his picture of the West End revolving around the dominant management of Hugh Beaumont and his clever manipulation of two producing companies, one profit-making and one not, is as clear an impression as we could wish for of one period in British theatrical history. It was a very different era. After Wynyard Browne's first play, Dark Summer, Frith's mother, satisfied that at 35 her boy had settled in his career, gave him £10,000. Immediately he paid Browne £1,000 - one half non-returnable, the other in advance of royalties for his next four plays. The Holly And The Ivy earned the author comparisons with Chekhov. Such comparisons would dog N C Hunter, too. They wrote essentially very delicate British family plays, dealing "with a quite specific order." Robert Morley's verdict on The Holly is spot on: "A beautifully acted, oddly moving play, oddly because there doesn't seem to be, on the surface, anything very new either said or done, and yet I have seldom, if indeed ever, so completely forgotten I was in the theatre." This was often the effect of Banbury's play-spotting, play-doctoring and play-directing. Does a play have to survive decades, even centuries, to be a good play? Can it not just be a good play in its day? It would be interesting to see if Keith Baxter, who has lately provided riveting but unobtrusive re-examinations of two Patrick Hamilton and J B Priestley warhorses, could bring up N C Hunter and Wynyard Browne as spanking new.
Only a few months ago watching Wendy Wasserman's play, The Sisters Rosensweig, I was happily reminded of a well-heeled, star-studded, Fifties Tennent production at The Haymarket. Gentle, gracious, elegant and comfortable, it had many of the hallmarks of a Banbury production from his heyday.
No book constructed round the career of Frith Banbury can be devoid of anecdotes. Here are Binky Beaumont's feline machinations as well as his elevation of standards of acting production and design. Here are the classic encounters of Dame Sybil and Dame Edith during Waters Of The Moon. Edith, in tears about Sybil's over-acting. Edith, pacified, after six months, with a new Balmain gown ("and do give Sybil a new cardigan"). Binky removing a snowman from the set because it upset Dame Edith, and reducing the designer to tears: "The Dame's tears,'' came the response, "are more important than the designer's tears. Get rid of it."
Gladys Cooper's entrance on the first night of The Holly and the Ivy. She had forgotten to take out a Polo mint she was sucking. On her first line she spat it across the stage, past a bemused Paul Scofield. At the dress rehearsal, she had been fascinated by Act One - not being in it, she had not bothered to read it. Then there is Hermoine Baddeley. Ah! And here we have an immediate chance to see a play Frith Banbury sponsored and developed, Rodney Ackland's The Pink Room. It is about to re-emerge as Absolute Hell at the National Theatre with Judi Dench in the Baddeley role. At one rehearsal, Miss Baddeley was showing insufficient passion for the soldier after whom she supposedly lusts. Banbury asked her if she could throw herself at him with more vigour. "Oh, my dear!" she said, "it's difficult to do it first thing in the morning when one's been at it all night!" Careful, Judi! Best perhaps is the gentle N C Hunter's widow who turned to spiritualism after her husband's death. In the grave his determination appeared to stiffen. When, during a revival of The Waters Of The Moon in 1977, the management asked Mrs Hunter to accept a smaller author's royalty to keep down costs, she consulted her dead spouse. "Norman said no."
Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 UK weather: Snow to fall in the coming week with sub-zero temperatures to last until early February
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
- 4 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
- 5 SAG Awards: Fake applause track interrupts Reese Witherspoon
Mr Selfridge series 3: Actress Kara Tointon says 'we're starting to see his demise'
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after Wembley Stadium rant
Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Game of Thrones season 5: IMAX releases new trailer with first look footage of Tyrion Lannister
Nigel Farage: NHS might have to be replaced by private health insurance
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
George Galloway condemns 'racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag' Charlie Hebdo at freedom of speech rally