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The Green Room

Michael Hasted brings you News, Views and Interviews from the Everyman Theatre

I remember J.B. Priestley. He was a rather portly Yorkshire gentleman. He always seemed to wear a three piece suit, or failing that, a two piece suit and a cardigan, and always had a pipe in his mouth. One description of him that would not spring to mind is sexy. And yet that, in the past few years, has what he has become.

The National Theatre production of “An Inspector Calls” has been doing the rounds for the past few years and has attained legendary status and permanent place on the school syllabus. A couple of weeks ago I drove down the M5 with Paul Milton, the Everyman’s Creative Director, to see students of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School performing Priestley’s “Time and the Conways”, another powerful drama about family relationships. And then there are the books; “The Good Companions” is a wonderful novel, one of my favourites and a must for anyone who is interested in provincial theatre.

I saw a very early performance of this production of “An Inspector Calls” at the National a couple of weeks after it had opened in 1992. It was breathtaking, literally.

There were moments when the audience gasped outloud. The setting was overpowering in its strength and simplicity and filled the vast Lyttleton stage wall to wall. It was, in the words of one critic, a redefining moment for British theatre and Stephen Daldry seemed to have arrived from nowhere to be its new wunderkind. Daldry has since gone on to a glittering career in the theatre and to direct Oscar and BAFTA nominated films.

Prior to the National’s revival twenty years ago, “An Inspector Calls” had had a rather chequered history. Oddly, its very first production was in Moscow in 1945.

The rather feeble reason given was that there was not a suitable venue available in London. In fact, the reason is much more likely to have been that the play was thought too critical of the class system that still dominated British society. It was thought that the predominately middle class theatre audiences in England needed cheering up after the war, not criticising.

However, its dramatic qualities were soon allowed to override the political ones and the play finally opened in the West End at the New Theatre in 1947 with Cheltenham’s own Ralph Richardson playing Inspector Goole in a cast that also included Harry Andrews, Margaret Leighton and Alec Guinness. The play opened on Broadway the following year, running for less than three months no doubt leaving American audiences bewildered but content in their stereotype of bowler hats, thatched cottages and umbrellas. In 1987 Tom Baker played the Inspector in a production that transferred to the West End from Theatre Clwyd.
However, by that time not even provincial rep theatres were performing the play very much and it seemed to have run out of steam, appearing to have no relevance in post Thatcher Britain. So, it was very perceptive and daring of Daldry and the National Theatre to see the play almost as an indictment of those selfish, scrabbling, self preserving times. But, in fact, I think the revival’s incomparable success was largely due to the spectacular production rather than the political relevance of the text.

The story concerns the visit of an “Inspector” during a dinner party at the Birling household to examine the suicide of a girl who had been a former employee at the family mill but who had been dismissed for inciting a strike. It then transpires that the girl had suffered at the hands of other members of the family as well. Inspector Goole is not so much an inspector of crimes, more an inspector of morals, honour and integrity and it is his probing into those aspects of the über bourgeois Birling family that finally brings about its collapse, literally.

Although this production has been touring for nearly two decades, I haven’t seen it since its original presentation on the South Bank twenty years ago. I think it’s had its ups and downs since then but if it is only a quarter as good as the original, it will be well worth seeing.

If last month’s previews had the theme of Oriental musicals with “The King and I” and “Madame Butterfly”, the April programme seems to have the theme
of families stuck in restricted, claustrophobic environments. The confined space in which the Birling family existed was at least of their own making but the unfortunate Frank family of Amsterdam were forced into theirs by circumstances beyond their control. Everyone knows the story of Anne Frank’s famous diary which charts two years of her life from 1942 to 1944. This extraordinary personal account of hope, courage and survival has united and touched people worldwide.

Whilst hidden from the Nazis with her Jewish family in a secret annex in a house in the Dutch capital, Anne documented her hopes, frustrations and day to day experiences whilst in hiding.

This production is brought to us courtesy of the Touring Consortium Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal who produced the recently acclaimed tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, is played by Christopher Timothy best known for his roles as James Herriot in the television version of “All Creatures Great and Small” and Mac in the BBC series “Doctors”.

There is one, probably apocryphal, account of a particularly awful production of the play which was so bad that when the Gestapo arrived to search the house, one helpful member of the audience shouted out ‘They’re in the attic.’ Judging by its pedigree, this production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” promises to be something special and I’m sure the Cheltenham audiences will know whose side they are on.

What You’ve Seen
March was another mixed bag at the Everyman. I was never a great fan of “Yes, Minister” or its sequel. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them; it was just one of those things I rarely seemed to watch. Because of this, I didn’t have many preconceptions or expectations of the stage version of “Yes, Prime Minister.” I think this turned out to be a good thing, not because it was bad but because, I suspect, it was quite different and would possibly offended the purists.

What elevated this play above the rest of the spin-off shows based on television sitcoms was that it was written as a stand-alone play by the original authors, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, and was not just a mish-mash of old scripts cobbled together. This play made sense even if, like me, you had no knowledge of the original. One aspect that was certainly different was that this play was, for much of the second act at least, bordering on farce.

Nothing wrong with that, in fact it was very funny, but I think most of it stemmed from the overacting by Graham Seed as the Prime Minster rather than any set plan by the writers or directors. I enjoyed it but I’m not sure I would have done had I been a “Yes, Prime Minister” aficionado to start with.

As I said last month, it is rare that the Everyman can present a big musical so I was looking forward to “The King and I”. However, from the very opening scene it was clear there were problems. Visually the whole thing was a mess.

The sets were dominated by moving screens which arbitrarily slid backwards and forwards, partly to allow scene changes but more often than not, to actually be the set itself. The new production of “Top Hat” that I mentioned in March employs identical screens but at least they were painted to fit in with the rest of the décor and only used when necessary. In “The King and I” they were black, tatty and wobbly and there was no getting away from them.

Another aspect of the show which appeared to have had no thought given to it was the dancers, especially the boys. I can’t believe in this day and age that it is impossible to find six non-pale Caucasian male dancers.

It was absurd and too great a leap of faith to imagine these fair skinned, unmade-up, blond boys as dancers in the court of Siam. Most of the girls were Asian and the couple that weren’t, at least made an effort to look as though they were.

That said, there were some good points in the show. Josefina Gabrielle was fine, in a rather Julie Andrews sort of way, as Anna and Ramon Tikaram looked good as the King. But, although some members of the audience were whistling a happy tune as they left, I for one, was very disappointed.