BOOK REVIEW / When dinosaurs ruled the stage

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The Independent Culture
Charles Duff's book is a counter-charge mounted against the popularly received opinion that there was no writing of any worth in the mid-century British theatre until 1956, when John Osborne stormed the stage. The forces Mr Duff marshals are perhaps not quite strong enough to demolish the citadel built on popular myth, but he has been canny in his choice of the general who spearheads his attack: the wise, witty, sensitive and literate Frith Banbury. Mr Banbury is an octogenarian plus three, the son of an admiral, a Rada graduate who acted in the Thirties and Forties, often in revue. Late in that decade, the actress Gwynne Whitby summoned him in an emergency to direct Rada students in a Pinero farce. He took to it immediately; and actors and authors took to him. His mother supplied some money, which gave him an unfair reputation as a rich dilettante. He had a keen eye for a script and a gift for tasteful tampering and shaping, often assisted surreptitiously by his protg Christopher Taylor. He greatly helped to nurture and reveal the talents of Wynyard Browne, N C Hunter, Rodney Ackland, John Whiting and Robert Bolt. He also sensitively realised middle-period Rattigan in The Deep Blue Sea, and in the book he disposes of the rumour that a gay version ever existed.

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."