Tag Archives: National Theatre

Gangsters and their molls in New York and Havana

 

Happy New 2017!

As a theatre lover I recognise that Broadway musical plays of the 1940s and 1950s such as Oklahoma and Carousel are as important pieces in their own way as the work of Brecht and Beckett, but I’ve never really been a fan. Probably to do with the fact that the actors in screen musicals like Howard Keel and Gordon MacRae always seemed a lighter thinner breed in comparison to Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart or Henry Fonda. Possibly also to do with the fact that my teenage pop listening days also included that bizarre later era of musicals when every established dramatic genre was twisted and turned into a musical like Paint Your Wagon or Camelot or Scrooge or Man of La Mancha. 

However, despite not being a fan of most musicals, I am a fan of Guys and Dolls.

This emerged from my great interest in the National Theatre in its early years at its home on London’s South Bank. That interest was spurred by their practice of touring productions to Glasgow plus the fact that one of their three auditoria, the Cottesloe, had a company for many years led by director Bill Bryden from my home town of Greenock. Guys and Dolls, by Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser, was staged at the NT in 1982, directed by Richard Eyre. He discussed it on Desert Island Discs in 1985 in an interview which is still available to hear on the BBC Radio 4 archive.

One interesting snippet from the interview is that Laurence Olivier originally planned to produce Guys and Dolls during his own stint at the National Theatre.  I love Eyre’s anecdote about Olivier’s criticism of his production’s New York accents being “a bit of a melange” and his view that Olivier’s vocal performance, in contrast, “would have been placed exactly to the right street corner”!

 

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The southern half of Manhattan, as seen from the top of the Empire State Building in 2003.

 

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Near Times Square in New York – definitely “Guys and Dolls” territory.

 

The NT was sometimes criticised in its early years for being too dependent on star actors and the cast of Guys and Dolls certainly had some of my own favourites of that time. Bob Hoskins of Pennies From Heaven and The Long Good Friday was Nathan Detroit (perhaps this led to his American characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Mermaids), Ian Charleson of Chariots of Fire was Sky Masterson, Julie Covington of Rock Follies was Sister Sarah Brown. Among the supporting players was Bill Paterson as Harry the Horse.  

This cast did not come to Glasgow but I did see in Edinburgh a touring production in 1985, which Eyre refers to in the radio programme.  I was always struck by that show’s slightly unbalanced casting. The main star billing went to Lulu, then finding her new route between two periods of pop music fame, who was Miss Adelaide. Nathan Detroit was played by long-established TV face Norman Rossington (similar to Bob Hoskins in his earthy persona I suppose, but perhaps then less fashionable). Sky Masterson was the black US actor, then unknown but later more familiar, Clarke Peters. I enjoyed the production although I felt it displayed more of the elements of an old traditional performance rather than a cooler new one. (I think this cast did, however, transfer to London for a time). “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” sung by Nicely-Nicely Johnston is traditionally regarded as the show-stopper song and David Healy had been retained from the original cast, but I definitely recall finding this section technically impressive (with its two encores which appeared to have become standard) rather more than emotionally or artistically.

Soon after I enjoyed the film version, directed by Joseph L. Manciewicz, who was similar to Richard Eyre in being unused to directing musicals.  Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando were paired in the two leading male roles. Sinatra would possibly have been seen as a safe piece of casting as Nathan Detroit being an established performer in screen musicals alongside the fashionable but provocative young dramatic actor Brando, but it’s easy to forget that in 1955 he was still younger than 40 and only two years into the new career which had been launched by From Here to Eternity and its attendant Oscar.

 

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Some old American cars in Havana, Cuba, in 2014. Part of “Guys and Dolls” takes place in Havana, a glamorous spot for American gangsters in pre-Castro times.

 

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The Bacardi building in Havana, built in 1930.

 

As with many folk of my age, my ideas and tastes in theatre were influenced by the writings of Kenneth Tynan, and Tynan’s review of the London premiere of Guys and Dolls still reads well: not just for his confident assessment of the show’s quality – “not only a young masterpiece, but the Beggars’ Opera of Broadway”, but his adoption of the language of its Damon Runyon characters: “Miss Adelaide, his ever-loving pretty who is sored up…”; “…being short of ready scratch, Nathan places a bet…”; “I will give you plenty of eleven to five that it is the first fugue that many patrons…ever hear”…;  “I found myself laughing ha-ha… more than a guy in the critical dodge has any right to”.      

This is probably the most famous work of its songwriter Frank Loesser. Songs as strong as any by more famous musical craftsmen like Rodgers and Hammerstein, the fruity, quirky Damon Runyon dialogue and its exaggerated delivery by the flashily dressed small-time criminals; the New York setting – all combine to keep Guys and Dolls fresh in my affections.

 

Reference:   Tynan, Kenneth (1984)   A View of the English Stage 1944-1963   London : Methuen

 

 

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The National Theatre in Scotland

 

That  the first fifty years of the UK’s National Theatre has produced work of considerable richness and variety was demonstrated both by the surveys by the press  and public reminiscences by actors and directors.

My own principal acquaintance with the NT came through their regular performances in Glasgow during the 1980s and 1990s.   These visits, possibly devised as a riposte to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s innovative annual residency in Newcastle, coincided with my increasing appetite for theatre and provided opportunities to see some great plays and great actors.

1983 was definitely the annus mirabilis. Peter Hall’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest was centred around Judi Dench’s performance as Lady Bracknell, which was much praised for its unusually youthful effervescence and which transferred successfully to a later film.

Other members of a peerless cast were Martin Jarvis, Nigel Havers, Zoe Wanamaker, Elizabeth Garvie and Anna Massey. Jarvis and Havers, although 30 years older, are repeating the roles this year, so they must have equally fond memories of the experience.

In tandem with The Importance of Being Earnest  was Bill Bryden’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Paul Scofield as Oberon and Jack Shepherd as Puck. Bryden, with whom I share a home town in Greenock, was in his pomp at that time as director of the National’s Cottesloe theatre and creator of such ensemble shows as The Mysteries and Lark Rise with their traditional music and earthy community values, and this Dream used many of his regular company.

I saw some other fine productions during this period. For example, Much Ado About Nothing, with Michael Gambon and Penelope Wilton; Mrs Warren’s Profession with Yvonne Bryceland;  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Lindsay Duncan and Ian Charleson;  Warren Mitchell in Death of a Salesman; and a small-scale show based on George Orwell’s writings called Orwell’s England.

Another was Paul Scofield in Othello. This was the tail end of the era when it was socially and artistically acceptable for Othello to be played by a white actor in black make-up. Then, too, the role of Iago had lower status than at present, so I am happy to name Michael Bryant who was brilliant in the part. “The Ryan Giggs of the early National Theatre”, as he was wittily described here to personify his overlooked but pivotal contributions.

Despite that Othello, other NT casting did acknowledge changing social and political ideas.  I am sure there was a production of Pinter’s The Caretaker with an all-black cast, and when I did finally catch Richard Eyre’s universally acclaimed production of Guys and Dolls in a touring version in Edinburgh, it included an African-American Sky Masterson in the later famous Clarke Peters.

 

 

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