NT panto to be broadcast free from 23-27 December

Here’s a bit of good cheer for all you young at heart Panto-holics! If you can’t go to the Panto, then this year the Panto will be coming to You!

The National’s drafted-in production of DICK WHITTINGTON which has been sadly curtailed for live performance, has – in the nick of time- been recorded for broadcast via the National’s YouTube channel from 23 to 27 December.

The National said “In honour of all the theatres that have been forced to cancel their Christmas pantos, we’re sharing DICK WHITTINGTON for FREE from 3pm (UK time) on 23 December until midnight (UK time) on 27 December.

Freshly updated for 2020 by Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd, this hilarious and heartfelt new version of the classic tale is packed with the cheekiest of jokes, the chattiest of animals, the awesomest of songs and the messiest of silliness.

As you enjoy watching the show, please support a theatre near you by making a donation or booking tickets for 2021.”

When the notice about Tier 3 status and closure became a reality last week, the cast and technical team worked tirelessly to bring forward the projected filming date so that they could just get the show “in the can” before the curtains fell yet again, and the NT along with London’s world-leading West End theatres, experienced their first ever “dark Christmas”.

So this year, although Covid-19 is the real villain, we can all still raise a laugh thanks to this most British of entertainments! Hooray!

You can find the National Theatre’s YouTube channel here


Time Travel Theatre: Watch PURLIE from 1970 – and a Bonus!

Melba Moore and Cleavon Little in the Broadway production of PURLIE, 1970

Its time to travel back to 1970 to enjoy one of the hits of that year. PURLIE is a musical version of Ossie Davis’ play PURLIE VICTORIOUS which was written and produced in 1961 (and later made into the 1963 film GONE ARE THE DAYS!). This musical version debuted in 1970, and although Davis had no hand in writing the musical, the co-authors felt that he must have credit, so much of the plot was taken from the original.

Opening at the Broadway Theatre on March 15th, PURLIE subsequently transferred to the Winter Garden and then to the ANTA Playhouse before concluding its run of 688 performances. The book is by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose, and Peter Udell, with lyrics by Udell and music by Gary Geld (someone about whom very little is known about, it appears).

Set in America’s Deep South, when Jim Crow laws still were in effect in the American South, PURLIE centres on the dynamic traveling preacher Purlie Victorious Judson, who returns to his small Georgia town hoping to save the community’s church, entitled Big Bethel, as well as to free the cotton pickers who work on oppressive Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee’s plantation. With the assistance of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, Purlie hopes to pry loose from Cotchipee an inheritance due his long-lost cousin and use the money to achieve his goals. Also playing a part in Purlie’s scheme is Cotchipee’s son Charlie, who ultimately proves to be far more fair-minded than his Simon Legree–like father and who saves the church from destruction with an act of defiance that has dire consequences for the tyrannical Cap’n.

The show was very well-received by critics and audiences, as well as the awards panels. Directed by Philip Rose and choreographed by Louis Johnson, they both were Tony Award nominated. Cleavon Little (playing the title character) won both the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical. Melba Moore made hers a triple, winning the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Lutiebelle, also winning the Drama Desk Award as well as the Theatre World Award.

Interestingly, a (possibly over-speedy?) revival at the end of 1972 failed after just a handful of performances.

The (below) recorded version we can enjoy here was produced in 1981 and lasts approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes. Produced for Showtime, it stars several of the Broadway cast including Robert Guillaume (who took over from lead Cleavon Little during the original Broadway run) and Melba Moore.

Thanks to YouTube poster David Weisberg for posting this.


EXTRA BONUS!

Here is an excerpt from the 1970 Tony award ceremony with two numbers from the original production of PURLIE and the Tony winners from the show, Cleavon Little (yes, he of later BLAZING SADDLES fame) and Melba Moore (yes, she of later international recording successes fame).


Time to Remember: the legendary Sir John Gielgud

Sir John Gielgud. Photo uncredited.

While our live theatre scene is interrupted, here is another in a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of interesting people and memorable events.

SIR JOHN GIELGUD (1904 – 2000) was one of the trinity of theatre knights who dominated the London stage for half a century. In this appreciation from 2010, ANTHONY FIELD recalls seeing many of his performances, and even auditioning for the man himself. Enjoy the read!

By the time I became a theatregoer in the 1930s John Gielgud had already been acting every year from 1921; by the time I became a regular theatregoer in the 1940s John Gielgud had already established himself as one of Britain’s leading actors, and admired as a director and a producer.

“Who’s Who in the Theatre” records his first appearance on November 7th 1921 as a Herald in HENRY IV, although his autobiography EARLY STAGES lists his first “walk-on” parts were in PEER GYNT and KING LEAR at the Old Vic in 1922. His schedule of appearances were then endless each month throughout every year in the 1920s and 1930s, repeatedly as actor, director and producer of classics and new drama.

In 1935 a unique production of ROMEO AND JULIET had Laurence Olivier playing Romeo to Gielgud’s Mercutio alternatively with Gielgud’s Romeo to Olivier’s Mercutio. This was a chance to make the difficult comparison of two great actors. Gielgud’s Mercutio was spoken with rare virtuosity, the greatly moving delivery of the Queen’s Mob’s lines becomes a scherzo; whereas Olivier looked a handsome young Italian as Romeo.

During these seasons John played Romeo 186 times, and played Hamlet over 500 times, both the longest runs on record.

My first chance to admire his acting was in the repertory season at the Haymarket in 1944 when he opened in THE CIRCLE on 11 October, LOVE FOR LOVE on 12 October and HAMLET on 13 October. He then took HAMLET and BLITHE SPIRIT on and extensive E.N.S.A. tour to the troops in Malta and Gibraltar, and then on to the Far East, appearing in Bombay, Madras, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Delhi, Karachi and Cairo.

He returned to tour all the UK’s regional theatres as Raskolnikoff in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (with Peter Ustinov) ending with a six-month season in London. His love for THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST led him to produce it and play John Worthing in a long tour of Canada and the U.S. in repertoire with LOVE FOR LOVE.

Gielgud was by then so established that he could develop his interest in new drama which included directing plays such as Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE. I, myself, auditioned for the part of the Gentleman Caller in September 1948 and perhaps it was as well that I failed as Gielgud was a notoriously demanding director, quick to sack any actor not up to it with ruthless and peremptory candour, although no-one seemed to be hurt as he was so full of heart for the theatre.

It is really impossible to assess who is the greatest actor of all time. Gielgud defeated Olivier as Hamlet and Romeo while Olivier knocked out Gielgud as Othello and Antony. Each contributed his own colour to the scene. Gielgud’s tremulous voice was such an exquisite instrument, illuminating the test of KING LEAR with passion and clarity. It measured evenly with Olivier’s triumphant exposition of this role. Alan Dent wrote that “John is claret and Larry is burgundy”.

The first performance (26th November 1953) of N C Hunter’s A DAY BY THE SEA at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket was unforgettable. Directed by Gielgud, the cast included Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, Irene Worth, Megs Jenkins and Gielgud himself. Gielgud cast himself as a failed diplomat who proposed twenty years too late to a woman who wasn’t too keen to take on a third husband after two disastrous marriages.

However, not long before the first night, Gielgud was subject to a police entrapment for a homosexual crime and it was of concern that his first entrance on the first night would cause a demonstration. I was sitting at the front of the Upper Circle and could see police officers at each side of the Stalls and Dress Circle. Sir John was, in the event, pushed onto the stage by Sybil Thorndike and was met by a thunderous ovation. This greeting was almost as unsettling to him than if he had been heckled. However, he soon regained his equilibrium and the ensemble acting was admired more than the play.

He reopened the Queen’s Theatre in July 1958 with his one-man show AGES OF MAN. He proved incomparable as Henry IV, Clarence, John of Gaunt and particularly Richard II when both he and the audience wept buckets. The anthology of Shakespeare would become a regular stand-by for him over the next decade, winning him worldwide acclaim.

In his later years John endorsed new playwrights in a way no classical actor had ever done, either appearing in or directing plays including Peter Shaffer’s BATTLE OF THE SHRIVINGS, David Storey’s HOME, Charles Wood’s VETERANS, Edward de Bono’s BINGO, Harold Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND and Julian Mitchell’s HALF-LIFE. My office wall is adorned with a painting of the front of the Apollo Theatre announcing John with Ralph Richardson in HOME which was a key moment in both actors’ careers, doing for them what John Osborne’s THE ENTERTAINER did for Olivier. It brought them firmly into the modern mainstream and John said “we were like the Broker’s Men in Cinderella”.

Again with Ralph Richardson in Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND he reported “what does it matter what it means so long as the audience is held” and Peter Hall’s direction led him to consider that “these two great actors are the best double act since Laurel and Hardy”.

Like every great actor, John Gielgud was endowed with faults. He could not walk across a stage without suggesting that his knees were tied together with a silk scarf. But then, Kemble was cold and Macready was pompous. However, John’s speaking voice was supreme in its lyrical flexibility and made him incomparable with its sheer exquisiteness. He brought his vocal beauty when playing Shakespeare to modern plays which benefitted from his nuances of humanity.

Olivier was better suited to the heroic parts, the extroverts, which Gielgud shrewdly left alone, preferring to play the comedies of manners with style and elegance. His Jack Worthing in IMPORTANCE was perfection while his Valentine in LOVE FOR LOVE was warm,tender, glowing and expressive of a heart full of human devotion. His taste and artistry was of the highest integrity and he did more to sustain the artistic standard of British theatre in the 20th century than any other actor.

Gielgud’s last stage appearance, after eleven years absence from the West End, was for Michael Redington at the Apollo in Hugh Whitemore’s THE BEST OF FRIENDS when his charm and wit were undiminished. During the 16-week season he celebrated his 84th birthday.

AFTERWORD: Some of Sir John Gielgud’s performances have been captured for television. You can see him in David Storey’s HOME here

and in Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND here


Celebrating the great theatres of master architect W G R Sprague

A very poor reproduction of W G R Sprague (the only one available), with thanks to arthurlloyd.co.uk

On the anniversary of his passing, we take this opportunity to celebrate one of the greats of UK theatre architecture, William George Robert Sprague (?/?/1863 – 4 December 1933).

Sprague was born in Australia in 1863 to actress Dolores Drummond, who spent some years in Australia, before returning to London in 1874.

At the tender age of sixteen, Sprague became an articled clerk for the legendary architect Frank Matcham for four years. In 1880 he was an articled clerk for Walter Emden for three years. He then formed a partnership with Bertie Crewe until 1895. His work rate was quite prolific, designing a number of theatres and music halls, mostly located in London. At the height of his powers he produced six intricately detailed and richly detailed jewel-box theatres in Westminster in less than four years. Unlike Matcham and Emden, Sprague studied architectural forms and conventions and applied his knowledge into his designs, was quoted that he “liked the Italian Renaissance” as a style for his frontages, but was happy to take liberties when needed “to get the best effects”. In 1902, the theatre newspaper The Era described him as “Britain’s youngest theatrical designer, with more London houses to his credit than any other man in the same profession.”

Novello Theatre

Sprague favoured two-tier auditoria, which invariably paid off for audiences in terms of atmosphere and sight-lines. Wyndham’s is a personal favourite and, to my mind, one of the most perfectly designed theatres I have ever had the pleasure to sit in.

Noel Coward Theatre

Today most of his surviving theatres in the West End are owned (and lovingly restored) by the Delfont Mackintosh organisation. The Strand (now the Novello)(1905), The Globe (now the Gielgud) (1906), Wyndham’s Theatre (1899), The Queen’s (now the Sondheim) (1907), and the New (later the Albery and now the Noel Coward) (1903) all form part of DMT’s classy and well-maintained portfolio of theatres.

Other surviving Sprague West End theatres include two intimate under 500-seaters, the St Martin’s Theatre (1916) (current home of the Mousetrap) and the neighbouring Ambassadors Theatre (1913). There is also the Aldwych (1905), the “sister theatre” to the Strand, Outside the West End we can still find the Coronet in Notting Hill (1898) (for most of its life a cinema but now returned as a theatre), and The Camden Theatre (1900) (now a nightclub called KOKO).

Camden Theatre, now KOKO

His most significant design outside London was the Sheffield Lyceum (1897), thankfully restored and now a Number One touring house.

SHEFFIELD LYCEUM By Harry Mitchell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28105563

Later years saw Sprague designing fewer buildings, but he left with a wonderful swansong. The Streatham Hill Theatre was the last theatre credited to him (in association with W. H. Barton), opened in 1929. A massive suburban hall seating more than many a West End House, 2800, its size made it vulnerable later but thankfully it still survives today (read more in my article here).

Streatham Hill Theatre

Regular readers of this blog will also be interested to know that Sprague was the architect of the now-lost Fulham Grand Theatre, which was featured in my Lost Theatres collection (find the article here)

Sprague died in Maidenhead in 1933, leaving a legacy of some of London’s most beautifully intricate houses. It is fitting that we remember this great architect whose work has given such pleasure to so many audiences- and will continue to do so for years to come.

For those interested, the encyclopaedic ArthurLloyd.co.uk site has an interesting article headed A Chat with Sprague from 1905, which you can find here.


Ex-homeless actors launch inspiring new business to help others

Riji, Marcus and Melween

We all associate Los Angeles with the glamour of the film and TV industry. But there is another side to LA, where people slip through the cracks in the glossy facade and face homelessness and deprivation.

As we all know, an actor’s life is never an easy one. But imagine how much more difficult it becomes when your only home is your car. This was the case for Riji Raja, a young woman living in her car for two years – along with her husband and their dog.

Originally from Dallas, Riji and husband Melween arrived in Los Angeles in 2016 full of hopes and dreams for their acting careers. Hitting a streak of bad luck compounded money issues and before they knew it, they had no home, which just demonstrates so well that problems can happen to people no matter where in the world they are or what their circumstances are. Pride, shame and guilt stirred up deep and dark emotions as the couple fought to claw their way back to better times, taking its toll on their mental health along the way. It seems hard to believe that around 15,000 people are living homeless in the greater LA area alone, three quarters of those with significant mental health issues.

Thankfully now their fortunes have improved, Riji and family now have a place to live again.

Realising that so many people can fall into this homelessness trap so easily, they decided to create a business together which worked to make life better for others in a number of ways.

Their business is called Affirmation Darling. The core product is a set of motivational and inspirational cards. The difference with these cards is in their title – AffirmActions. The cards have positive, motivating affirmations on one side, and actions to support the affirmation on the other. The idea comes out of their own situation – Riji had often used positive affirmations to help her improve her state of mind and bolster her resilience. However, as the affirmations she had used had no reinforcement, their power simply drained away, leaving her feeling back at square one. Her idea was to produce a series of her own positive and motivating affirmations, which are then backed up by ideas for actions to reinforce the suggestions which therefore immediately gives purchasers guidance as to how to put the ideas into action.

Originally designed as a mood booster for actors going through the gruelling and soul-destroying process of auditioning – something that Riji and Melween had encountered almost daily, the idea evolved into a business which has been crowdfunded (and I am proud to have supported them in my own small way in this), and the team have now set up their own website.

Not only are the cards useful positive inspiration for actors, they work for anyone looking for a mind boost. Which in these pandemic times, is the majority of us!

But that’s not the only way AffirmationDarling aims to help. With every purchase of a deck of AffirmAction cards, the company donates another pack to a young adult experiencing homelessness and/or mental health crisis.

What a great couple, and such a great business idea. Please take a look at their site, www.affirmationdarling.com And if you have a budding artists, actors or other creatives in your family, a pack of AffirmActions is a great gift to boost their morale at difficult times, like waiting for an audition, when perhaps you can’t be there for them.

Let’s all wish Riji, Melween and little Marcus well!