Remembering Richard Pilbrow – First Knight of Illumination

Very sad news reached me on Thursday that a friend and colleague Richard Pilbrow has died at the age of 90. Tributes are many to his work; Richard literally invented the language for theatre lighting in the 1950s and 60s, and his invaluable input improved the design of arts centres around the globe, including our own National Theatre complex in London. He is also remembered as the man who established leading consultancy Theatre Projects, a company which still thrives today, and which Richard was still President Emeritus until his passing. Less known is of his excellent track record as a producer, working with experienced hands such as my late colleague Anthony Field to being the works of Stephen Sondheim and Kander and Ebb to the UK for the first time.

Prompted by the publication in 2011 of A THEATRE PROJECT, my late friend and colleague ANTHONY FIELD writes below about the career of the man who single-handedly invented the language of modern stage lighting, RICHARD PILBROW. Richard and Anthony had been dear friends and producing partners for decades, and Anthony’s exit from the Arts Council after 27 years could only have been to work with someone as multi-talented as Richard, whose own company – Theatre Projects – gained Anthony as their Finance Director. Theatre Projects is a world-renowned company which has created some of the most significant and successful performing arts venues around the world over the last five decades. What better tribute to a dear friend and colleague than to enjoy reading about his fascinating journey through the theatre of the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. This article is from 2011.

Richard Pilbrow (left), Anthony Field (right)

Recently published is a long-awaited book A THEATRE PROJECT, an autobiographical memoir by Richard Pilbrow, the pioneer of contemporary stage lighting who developed his career as a theatre consultant and producer. Over the last five decades he has been involved in the production of many successful musicals.

In 1962 Donald Albery contracted him to work in a spectacular new show called BLITZ! with music by Lionel Bart. This production was to present Cockney London under Hitler’s bombardment during the Second World War – on stage, which had never seen its like before or since. Noel Coward described it as “twice as loud and twice as long as the real thing”. Sean Kenny who had created brilliant sets for OLIVER! went on to designing extraordinary sets for BLITZ! at the Adelphi and Richard Pilbrow’s account of the Royal Gala preview found the stage smoke engulfing the orchestra which had to stop playing. Fortunately the first night proved perfection.

This led to Tony Walton writing to ask Richard to meet Hal Prince in New York to discuss lighting a new Broadway musical which Tony was to design. Richard stayed with Tony and his wife, Julie Andrews then starring in CAMELOT and the next morning they discussed producing A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM by Burt Shevelove with music by Stephen Sondheim. This led to Hal Prince encouraging Richard to become a producer, establishing Theatre Projects as Hal’s London office

Their first London project was to be A FUNNY THING… and everyone thought that they were crazy to cast Frankie Howerd in it. They saw him play one of the broker’s men in panto at Coventry and Peter Cook persuaded them about his comic talent. However, the tour proved a nightmare with no laughs and the previews were frightening. The opening night finally arrived with Frankie’s “Comedy Tonight” introducing the notable group of British comedians – Kenneth Connor, Eddie Gray, Jon Pertwee and Robertson Hare brought the audience to its feet in recognition and welcome. The triumph ran for two years and Theatre Projects was the first-ever London management to close the show for a week after the first year to give the entire cast a holiday.

Amidst Richard’s full work programme of plays and consultancy for the new National Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange, he continued to co-produce and light such musicals as HALF A SIXPENCE with Tommy Steele at the Cambridge Theatre and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING at the Shaftesbury.

Richard plowed his profits from A FUNNY THING… into SHE LOVES ME which he adored. This had started as an idea of Julie Andrews to turn the film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER into a musical for her although her Disney contract for the MARY POPPINS film prevented her from appearing in SHE LOVES ME. The reviews in London were the kiss of death – “charming, charming, charming”-which did not help to pull in audiences. The show has never proved commercially successful but Richard was then excited with another score played to him by Jerry Block and Sheldon Harnick for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

In 1964 Richard and Tony Walton designed and lit GOLDEN BOY on Broadway, with the book by Clifford Odets and music by Charles Strouse. Its success was partly due to the overwhelming projections for backgrounds which established a new method of designing musicals.

Returning to London, Richard applied himself to opening FIDDLER at Her Majesty’s Theatre although the whole theatre establishment told him that such a Jewish show would never succeed in the west End.

The long story of engaging Topol and the five-year run of FIDDLER has been retold many times. Suffice to note that all producers have their failures as well as successes. Although not a failure but the next Broadway musical to involve Richard was THE ROTHSCHILDS: I myself enjoyed it enormously when I saw it in 1970 but it was not a big hit, although it ran for over 500 performances at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

Back in London in 1968 Richard had opened his fourth musical in the West End which was Kander and Ebb’s CABARET starring Judi Dench at the Palace Theatre. Although Judi protested “I just can’t sing”, Hal Prince was enchanted with her, and declared “This will be the Real Sally Bowles”.

The next lighting venture was for Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY in 1971 in New York which Richard went on to produce in London at his favourite theatre, Her Majesty’s, with Elaine Stritch. It ran for 344 performances but did not recoup its capital. However, it established a long-term relationship with Stephen Sondheim. Richard demonstrated to London that musical theatre could be a profound theatrical form with Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in 1975 with Jean Simmons at the Adelphi. This ran for 406 performances during which Virginia McKenna replaced Jean.

The 450 pages of this story of Richard Pilbrow’s life can hardly be summarised in one short article except by highlighting the musicals in which he was involved, which included THE GOOD COMPANIONS in 1974 at Her Majesty’s. This had a libretto by Ronald Harwood with music by Andre Previn. Then there was the large-scale spectacle of GONE WITH THE WIND at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Palace, and the failures of CARTE BLANCHE at the Phoenix and the revival of KISMET at the Shaftesbury. His first venture with Cameron Mackintosh was the revival of OKLAHOMA! at the Palace in 1980 and then with Tommy Steele again, he lit SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN for Harold Fielding at the London Palladium.

The transfer of WEST SIDE STORY, revived at Leicester, to Her Majesty’s proved a big hit in 1984 and led to the production of LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC at the Adelphi.

There are still dreams and hopes of shows which never achieved their potential such as BUSKER ALLEY with Tommy Tune, based on the 1936 movie ST. MARTIN’S LANE, and Cy Coleman’s THE LIFE. Very sadly the failure of the 1986 revival of A FUNNY THING… at the Piccadilly with a sick Frankie Howerd put an end to the wealth of Theatre Projects’ programme of musicals but Richard’s continued career in the US in the 21st century finds him lighting revivals of WHERE’S CHARLEY?, THE BOY FRIEND and the new A TALE OF TWO CITIES.

All in all, anyone wanting to read the whole background of the creation of musical theatre will find it in Richard Pilbrow’s engrossing book “A Theatre Project” published by Plasa Media.

AFTERWORD: You can find out more about Richard Pilbrow’s fascinating book A THEATRE PROJECT here


British Music Hall Society’s first annual conference is a hit!

Last weekend the British Music Hall Society held their first annual conference which examined “How the Music Hall worked 1840-1918”, held in the beautiful and atmospheric venue of The Cinema Museum in London. And what an entertaining event it was!

A wide range of speakers were given varied length timeslots to discuss their passions, archive excavations and family histories, over the busy two-day conference, which sold out almost as soon as bookings opened some months ago.

Thanks to the large amount of time, love and planning invested by Alison Young (Deputy Chair of the British Music Hall Society) and Charlie Holland, noted author and archive raider, the event was a solid success from start to finish.

In a clever move, the makeup of the day was broken up into varied sections, with three speakers given twenty-minute slots, followed by a Q&A for all three; after a short break, there were five six-minute presentations also followed by a group Q&A. This not only had the effect of concentrating minds on the variety of subjects, but also to see links and parallels between some of the speakers’ subjects and approaches, which enlivened the Q&A sections considerably. To further break up the day, each lunchtime was preceded by a different hour-long walk around the locality exploring the sites (many long gone) of where acts lived and music halls stood, ably lead by Alison and Charlie.

A kaleidoscope of fascinating subjects covered included juggler Paul Cinquevalli; trapezist Jules Leotard; the Keaton family’s only music hall booking in the UK; animal acts; child performers and their safeguarding; variety reviews; illumination of the stage; ethnic representation; songs related to speciality acts; speciality acts themselves; female magicians; act copies and rivalries; theatre managers impact on dress and behaviour of audiences; significant variety agents, and the entangled world of showbusiness families, amongst many others.

Themes reappeared through different presentations; the importance of the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square (on the site now occupied by the Odeon) in terms of acts’ credibility and bookability; the famed trapeze artist Jules Leotard and the song The Man On The Flying Trapeze (was it about him?); the theft and copying of others acts in an age before copyright.

We also explored through the Q&As the importance of viewing the events of over a century ago in context of the time they occurred in. Female artists were celebrated as exercising their agency on stage, whilst still being controlled by the business establishment of predominantly male managers and agents. Managers were applauded for their attempts to exercise improvement in the dress and decorum of their audiences. We were also encouraged to consider whether our empathy has an expiry date – with some of the acts described meeting an untimely demise during performances, how has the passage of over 100 years affected our ability to empathise with the performers who often risked life and limb to support themselves and their families, (one tightrope walker still performing while eight months’ pregnant).

Exhibitions occupied adjoining rooms, and a sprawling book and merchandise area was tempting – all ideal ways to while away the break times between sessions.

For me the highlights were Tracey Gregory’s short presentation on animal performers, with a fascinating look at the vast array of stables and other animal accommodation around Brixton; Lisa Stein Haven’s talk on the Three Keatons quickly terminated engagement at London’s Palace Theatre (Father Joe brought the tickets home on the same night as they opened!); and most entertaining for me was the style and delivery of veteran performer Alan Stockwell who delighted the audience with his descriptions(with accompanying graphic posters) of unusual and dangerous speciality (or “spesh”) acts.

A hugely entertaining way to spend a weekend for anyone with an interest in showbusiness. Next year’s event is already on the drawing board- I hope to be there- and maybe see you there too!

Congratulations and thanks once again to everyone involved, but especially to Alison Young and Charlie Holland for a hugely successful event, made even better by their hard work and love of their subjects.


Remembering the great Sandy Powell

Albert Arthur Powell MBE (30 January 1900 – 26 June 1982), known professionally as Sandy Powell, was a highly popular British comedian whose career spanned well over 60 years. In his time, he sold almost 8 million records, had a 75,000-strong children’s fan club, produced his own shows, had a 20-year residency at an Eastbourne pier theatre and was an extremely adept businessman. But what we remember best today about Sandy is the many laughs he brought us.

For those who know him, here are some opportunities to rekindle your memories. And for those to whom he is unknown, well, you have a real treat in store.

Where to start? Personally, I think you’ll enjoy his legendary ventriloquist sketch which you can find here, filmed in 1979, assisted by his wife, Kay White.

Here is Sandy reminiscing about his long career and performing life on the valuable series THE OLD BOY NETWORK in 1979

And finally, here’s a (sadly incomplete) documentary about Sandy in 1980.

Thank you Sandy for all the laughs!


Review: A CRITICAL STAGE

A CRITICAL STAGE at the Tabard Theatre, Jeremy Booth and Barbara Wilshere.
Photo by Charles Flint courtesy of Tabard website

IN BRIEF: Lovingly-researched and well-crafted celebration of theatre critic James Agate winningly focuses on depth rather than breadth, aided by dedicated performances

The relationship between theatre practitioners, theatre critics and audiences has always been a spiky one. The critic’s view is often the one deferred to by the public when deciding what to see and what to avoid. Their power in making or breaking productions is undeniable though often over-stated. Rarely as publicly-recognised or as feted as the stars upon the stage, critics themselves tend to be forgotten after their work ceases. James Agate was a glorious exception to this – a larger than life character with a genuine love of life, people- and his work.

Only rarely are critics themselves critiqued, but the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Theatre and Performance put it succinctly when they described James Agate thus: “his criticism consequently is verbose and self-indulgent but hugely entertaining and revealing”

A CRITICAL STAGE is writer/director Gareth Armstrong’s affectionate remembrance of one of the mid-20th century’s most respected theatre critics, James Agate. Now largely forgotten outside (or even inside) theatre circles, this carefully-researched play weaves together choice excepts from his writing to create a portrait of the writer as a public figure, playing the part, always aware that he is writing his own lines, in a delicate balance between praise and paranoia that he might miss “the next big thing”. Armstrong’s sprightly, zesty dialogue sparkles and crackles to successfully paint for us a three-dimensional portrait of Agate, inconsistencies and all, into something which really comes alive under the author’s own direction and studied performances. Thankfully not simply an illustrated timeline, as biographical plays can often be reduced to, A CRITICAL STAGE plays it smart by focusing closely on a short period of time and allows its characters to fully inhabit the space created.

Set in wartime London in 1942, the play covers a perilous time in both the career of Agate, at that time chief theatre critic for The Sunday Times, and his secretary “of sorts” Leo, a gifted piano teacher and soloist – a gay Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis. Leo’s questionable refugee status which threatens his safety, and Agate’s indiscretions which threaten to derail his critic’s job (“I have to work- it defines me”) provide tensions for each man to navigate as the play uncovers the stories behind the men’s current predicaments. Outsiders both, their shared gayness creates a camaraderie against a hostile world.

The appearance of actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, railing at Agate’s critical demolition of her performance as Lady Macbeth (“You shit” she explodes (in a delightful entry line). “It’s my job” he retorts), broadens the focus to fully involve Leo and later flares up into a fascinating discussion between Gwen and Agate as to the value of critics, and whether critics are artists or tradesmen – which is pointed, engaging and absorbing.

This smooth four-hander has a strong cast. Jeremy Booth gives a full-bodied incarnation of Agate, showing us hints of the kindly, principled man behind the public façade of a belligerent, laser-confident, driven man of the theatre who prefers his private side to be kept private. David Acton plays put-upon Leo with twitchy finesse, giving as good as he gets, his blood-chilling monologue about his brush with Nazism provoking his “terror” which curtailed his public performances – which authentically cuts across time. Barbara Wilshere plays Gwen with a feisty humanity, seeing through Agate’s façade; although there is an underlying affection, but she is not intimidated by his barbs. Smike, Agate’s compliant yet resourceful “houseboy” (Sam Hill) rounds out the cast.

Everything here is employed with precision – from words (Peter, the caretaker’s sickly son who Agate buys presents for and spends time with, described by Agate as “completely innocent”) to shocks (bondage, exploding bombs),  props (a missing pair of trousers, a silver winner’s cup) and more.

Words, Agate’s critical components, are rightfully respected and used deftly here. Writer of 40 books, Agate bats away criticism of his solitary play credit as having “divided opinion” with all the aplomb of a contemporary Coward or a modern spin doctor. As to his appearance as only the second guest on the fledgling Desert Island Discs radio programme with its scripted interjections between the records, he confides to Gwen: “It’s the BBC- we daren’t risk a real conversation”.

There is little sense of the real world of 1942 intruding into the theatrical world that these characters inhabit, apart from an unexploded bomb and a call for “Gin and It” resulting in a concoction of whatever alcohol happened to be available. This is helpful in allowing us to focus upon the characters themselves.

It is clear that we are in experienced hands, from the smart construction (a very effective “shock” opening and first-act curtain) to the clever revisiting of a background running gag, this is assured writing which knows its own value but never allows itself to lose focus. There’s a lot of fun to be had, a lot to discover and much to appreciate in this play.

Concluding as Peter is laid to rest, Agate fends off competition and Leo overcomes his terror, the critical stage recedes as the characters sit back to listen to Agate’s broadcast as the theme of Desert Island Discs reassuringly wafts across the stage.

Agate’s concern about his legacy – a common theme, especially with gay men – has been assuaged to a considerable degree thanks to this careful and affectionate play which not only educates and celebrates his career as a passionate advocate of theatre, but also of a fascinating, flawed character of deep principle and humanity.

A CRITICAL STAGE ran at the Theatre at the Tabard, Chiswick, London from 31 May to 17 June 2023


It’s SHOWTIME! again for the entertainment buildings of Camberwell

Camberwell Palace, one of Camberwell’s most significant entertainment buildings

On Monday 5th June there’s a fantastic opportunity to hear about Camberwell’s fascinating entertainment history, taking place in a building which in itself is worthy of a visit.

The Golden Goose is a long-established pub which has recently been repurposed to become a 70-seat theatre. The theatre has generously donated its space for this event.

As part of the Camberwell Festival of Arts, seasoned presenter, historian and enthusiast Richard Norman has been invited to give another entertaining presentation under the festival’s theme of SHOWTIME!.

In Richard’s fascinating talk, you’ll discover Camberwell’s contributions to the world of entertainment during the early days of pioneering film production and music hall, variety theatre, and comedy.

With film clips, songs, and music, this special Camberwell Talk promises to be an memorable evening!

Richard Norman is a local historian specialising in buildings designed for entertainment and has given numerous talks at the Victorian and Albert Museum, Tate Modern and many local history societies.

It takes place on Monday 5th June at 7 pm at the Golden Goose Theatre, 146 Camberwell New Rd, SE5 0RR, which is just 10 mins walk from Oval tube or Camberwell Green. Ticket prices are £10 (£7 concessions) and include a complementary glass of wine.

Tickets can be booked at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/…/camberwell-talks…

The talk starts at 7pm and runs about an hour. Don’t miss out on the raffle with prizes at the end of the evening, with all proceeds going to SE5 Forum, which aims to improve the area for benefit of all visitors and residents.

See you there!

Your dapper host for the evening, Mr Richard Norman!