THEATRE / The truth in several slippery forms
Sunday 18 October 1992
Truth in several slippery forms is the subject of Alice Childress's Trouble in Mind: social truth, and what passes for truth on stage and among theatre workers who - as in that example - may achieve it by an act of deception. Written in 1956, the piece echoes the early rumblings of the American civil- rights movement via the rehearsal of a Southern lynching drama.
Such shows being a rarity on Broadway, the company's driving impulse is to come through with a whale of a hit. But their team spirit covers a spectrum of personal attitudes. There are drama-school youngsters who just want to get a professional foothold. Others are the prickly Millie (Glenna Forster-Jones), always on the outlook for racial patronage; a roly-poly character actor (Marcus Heath) with childhood lynch-party memories. And there is Wiletta (Carmen Munroe), who has at last achieved star billing after a career playing Hollywood stereotypes, and now uses her new-found muscle to challenge the text. If truth is required of her, why not of the author as well? Why, she asks, does the victim's mother have to hand him over to the mob; why can't he escape? The director shrugs: 'We don't want to antagonise the audience.' 'Will they be offended,' she strikes back, 'if he gets away?'
That is a fair specimen of the play's tone of voice. Childress began her career as an actor, and what she produces here is a believable dialogue between professional colleagues, over which the shadow of the plantation still falls. The director (a grinningly Napoleonic Maurice Roeves) and his white male lead are straight-ticket Manhattan liberals, but when the adrenalin starts pumping you can imagine them as 19th-century slave owners.
There are schematic drawbacks to the piece. Childress over- elaborates it by dragging in a parallel with Irish Home Rule: and the unwisely prolonged lynch-melodrama scenes bankrupt its credit as a Broadway property. What remains, in Nicolas Kent's beautifully cast production, is a humane and well- characterised study of artistic compromise, and of what happens when one power system tries to pass judgement on another. 'Where,' the director asks in desperation, 'can I raise dollars 100,000 to tell the unvarnished truth?' In this show, for once, the theatre is telling the truth about itself.
Childress's company would have felt at home in the mid-19th-
century world of Ostrovsky's Artists and Admirers, and spotted their counterparts on the provincial Russian stage, with its mistrust of educated actors and grovelling dependence on backers. Instead of the shadow of the plantation, there falls the shad
ow of the serf theatre, where performers who failed to please were whipped in view of the audience. 'You don't understand,' drawls one moneyed first-nighter, 'the special relationship that we chaps in the front row of the stalls have with the artists.' But we understand, after seeing the crowd- pulling Negina fired from the theatre for repelling the advances of a fat old Prince.
This, however, is not a melodrama. It is like Dickens without the villains. Negina, played by a tensely beaming Sylvestra le Touzel, may spurn the groping gentry; but neither does she fancy a virtuously impoverished marriage with the high-minded Petya - a prize intellectual bigot given to remarks such as, 'You know talent and depravity are inseparable'. What she wants is to get on in her profession, and when an elegant visitor, Ivan, offers to buy her threatened benefit performance, she seizes her moment of triumph; and duly pays for it.
It is by a joint master-stroke of Ostrovsky and the actor, Christian Burgess, that Ivan appears throughout as her sympathetic and civilised friend; and that only after the last-act train has carried them both away, do you recognise everything he has done as an act of icy sexual calculation. The chill of that moment is uncharacteristic of Phyllida Lloyd's production, which excels in combining a sense of long-term foreboding with the sheer fun of the present moment; as where Negina's show turns from a flop to a sell-out and her enemies, led by Christopher Benjamin's fruitily adipose Prince, make a dash for the box office. However hard you try, you can't dislike them.
Thence to the backstage dregs of Radio Times, Abi Grant's back-handed salute to the old Light Programme, with a Memory-Lane score assembled from still catchy numbers of Noel Gay ('Hey Little Hen', 'Run, Rabbit, Run', 'I Took My Harp to the Party'). The subject is succulently appealing, and David Gilmore's production is not too bad so long as it sticks to evoking the primitive sound effects and pun-congested sketches of wartime variety shows, hosted by the hand-flapping Tony Slattery as the comic star, with guarded references to ITMA and a well-drilled group of close harmony singers. There is, alas, also a mangled storyline involving the star's rocky marriage, and his conversion of a censorious BBC producer into a cross-talk stooge: from which there is no telling whether the intention is direct comedy or period pastiche. You are simultaneously invited to snigger at tight-lipped Brief Encounter heroics and warm to the boys and girls for their patriotism. A good chance thrown away.
'Trouble in Mind': Tricycle (071- 328 1000). 'Artists and Admirers': Pit (071-638 8891). 'Radio Times': Queen's (071-494 5040).
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