A sedate kind of sado-masochism

Frith Banbury, the director of The Old Ladies, on the pleasures and trials of life on the stage
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It's pretty impressive to hear that someone was in Olivier's Hamlet; Frith Banbury was in Gielgud's. It wasn't a very big part - Banbury, just starting his acting career in 1934, in defiance of his admiral father, was a halberd carrier - but it marked the beginning of his long association, as performer, producer, and director, with the great names of the stage. Now 91, he is directing Rodney Ackland's The Old Ladies. Rosemary Leach will be Lucy, a dear old thing who lets rooms to May (Angela Thorne), a twittering spinster, and Agatha (Siân Phillips). Agatha at first seems merely a boring boho ("Nobody loves beauty like I do"), but turns out to be something much more sinister.

"It's a sado-masochistic play," says Banbury, who has directed the 1935 thriller in a stage revival and for television. "In a way it has dated, because May wouldn't be so frightened now about starving to death - Social Security did not exist in those days. But in a way it hasn't. It's not for nothing that there is a phrase 'second childhood'. In old age we often revert to the way we behaved at school, and when you think of the bullying that goes on there! The play is timeless, really.

"Did you see Anthony Page's production of The Master Builder? They wore period dress, but the costumes were not that far from what might be worn today, and the whole production gave you a feeling that this could be happening in the present. I'm trying to do the same thing with The Old Ladies."

The story of the elderly trio caused no trouble with the censor, but until 1968 (when the Theatre Act ended stage censorship) the theatre world was aware that the Lord Chamberlain was always looking over its shoulder. Not only what one said but how one said it - or might say it - was forever at issue. "Once I was in a revue with Hermione Baddeley, and we were told she wasn't allowed to say, 'Oh, Bognor's very nice, but a bit constipating, don't you think?'" The problem was not the word but the precedent. "They said, 'Once Miss Baddeley has been allowed to say it, other actresses may say it in a way that is suggestive and unpleasant.' So we replaced it with 'costive,' which was deemed alright."

But single words were not as worrying as the wrong sort of ideas. "People went to the theatre for reassurance. If anyone told too many truths it made them uncomfortable." Banbury becomes an affronted matron, lips and cheeks quivering with disdain: "Oh, I didn't like that play. It left a nasty taste in my mouth."

But playgoers were adept at cracking the code. In Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, which Banbury directed in 1952, a judge's wife leaves her husband for a younger man she "loves", which really means that he is the first man to sexually excite her.

'The Old Ladies' begins its tour on 30 September at the Key Theatre, Peterborough (01733 552439)

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