Weekly Repertory Theatre in the 1950s; watch an entertaining first-hand account from Martin Daniels

Through the 1950s, in hundreds of theatres up and down the British Isles, weekly repertory theatre brought a steady diet of plays to local communities who cherished their smallish local theatres. Groups of actors were hired to perform a complete season of plays, one being performed on stage whilst the following week’s play was being learned and blocked. And so it went on, week after week, year after year. Dying out at the end of the decade, “weekly rep” (as it was known) was fondly remembered by those who had seen it.

As a young actor, Martin Daniels experienced first-hand the demanding and unpredictable world of British weekly rep during the 1950s. In this engaging and informative interview from 2016 with Ardent Theatre’s Mark Sands, he tells us about how weekly rep worked, the various circuits, and why rep faded into history, along the way sharing some fascinating and funny anecdotes. The interview is helpfully divided into sections so that you can dive straight to the part that most interests you, or you can get comfy and watch the whole thing from start to finish, a pretty interesting way to spend an hour!

You can watch the interview here

Martin Daniels. Photo courtesy Mark Sands

Mouse eats Fox

20th Century Fox logo 1953. copyright. courtesy Logopof at Flickr

So Disney’s takeover of 21st Century-Fox is sealed at a cost of $71 billion. What, I wonder, will this mean theatrically? Disney’s own theatrical arm, Disney Theatrical Group, are producers of highly-successful screen to stage adaptations of Disney properties such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, Aladdin and others. In terms of film studios adapting their own works, Disney is by far the most successful, focussing as they have on musicals, mostly animated, which is of course the area in which Disney has been an industry leader since the 1930s.

Perhaps with this major acquisition we shall see more stage musical versions of Fox film properties. They certainly have the material. Don’t forget, 20th Century-Fox was one of the foremost exponents of the vibrant Technicolor Musical in the early 1940s, easily rivalling fellow majors Paramount and even MGM in terms of budget, spectacle and quality. Legendary “42nd Street” director/drillmeister Busby Berkeley, in “The Gangs All Here” (see the Blu Ray for the most sumptuous colour you have ever bathed in), giving us a memorable (and a little bit trippy) routine with neon hula hoops in the dark, as well as the unique Carmen Miranda jauntily sporting a hat the size of the Empire State building made entirely of fruit; now there’s a challenge for any stage designer!

Many other hit movies (including all of the Marilyn Monroe vehicles) seem to be sitting there just waiting to be developed. Of course, many of them originated as stage works, others as book or short stories. Fox’s art house label, Fox Searchlight, similarly has a string of intriguing titles which have the potential to hit the stage profitably.

Fox was late to the Broadway party. After years of simply licensing out properties, in 2013 they took a more active role, collaborating with major Broadway producer Kevin McCollum (producer of Motown, Rent, In The Heights, amongst others) on bringing their film works to the stage. Fox Stage Productions have developed stage versions (in various degrees of production) including The Devil Wears Prada, Mrs Doubtfire and Father of the Bride, as well as the stage version of All About Eve, currently playing in London starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James (co-produced by Sonia Friedman).

Stage is much cheaper to produce than film, with greater potential returns and longevity for a big hit. In London, for example, The Lion King has achieved substantially advanced prices in a 2000-seater house, consistently, for twenty years (this October). The comparative price of a theatre ticket versus a movie ticket (in the UK, at least 5 to 1 in favour of theatre) also plays its part in the financials.

What would I like to see? Well how about a musical version of How To Marry A Millionaire, starring Summer Strallen, Louise Dearman and Sheila Atim, and the boys Tyrone Huntley, Gabriel Vick, Michael Xavier and (a dream) Robert Morse as J D Hanley.

Perhaps you have your own ideas of what shows from Fox you’d like to see? Let me know in the comments below…

It will naturally take time for the identification, development and the hard work of turning possibilities into actual slated projects, but I feel certain that Disney’s global success and ambition will help many historic Fox properties to realise their future stage potential and reach wider audiences.

Theatre FootNotes for February 2019 – a brief summary of other theatre events in my diary

GLOBAL FEMALE VOICES (Arcola) Extracts of five plays debut in the UK in a one-night only reading event , launching the pioneering Global Voices Theatre company created by rising star Lora Krasteva. Plays selected from a global submission of 93 works and curated by East London artist Fauve Alice.

LIPA Graduating Students London Showcase (Trafalgar Studios). Always worth checking out the talent pouring from the Uni that brought us Adam Penford (Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse) and Selladoor’s founders David Hutchinson and Phillip Rowntree as well as the brilliant director Jamie Lloyd, to name just a few.

BARE- LAMDA students’ graduation musical (LAMDA). Good performances in interesting youth-focussed musical, soon to be professionally presented in London.

KEITH? (Arcola)”Tartuffe” put in a blender with lumpy results. A few really funny lines and some good acting but, sadly, too flimsy to stand up.

EDEN (Hampstead Theatre Downstairs) Trump-style “property war” play which in my opinion hasn’t enough new to say or depth of character to give the diligent cast much to work with.

THE AMERICAN CLOCK (Old Vic) The third production I have seen in London (after the National debut in 1986 and the tiny Finborough in 2012) and this is (sadly) the least effective. Clarke Peters reaps whatever plaudits can be salvaged for standing in at late notice.

Views: A Star is…..Off by Marilyn Cutts

Marilyn Cutts

As well as being a space for my own thoughts, the Views section of the blog will sometimes give specially invited Guest contributors a chance to speak their mind on interesting theatre topics.

Our first Guest writer is actor/director Marilyn Cutts who has a wealth of experience across the industry, from Fascinating Aida’s first lineup to an extensive theatrical career encompassing musicals, drama and opera. Marilyn is passionate about actors’ rights, music, literature, art and theatre buildings. Marilyn writes below about how producers handle a star’s absence.

A Star is…..Off

When Louise Redknapp sustained injuries during rehearsals for the musical “9 to 5” (now playing in London), the producers took the unusual step of offering to exchange tickets for a future performance at which the Eternal star would be appearing. For those patrons who had booked specifically to see Ms. Redknapp this was undoubtedly a generous gesture, but it does raise an interesting point.

It used to be the case that in amongst the small print on the back of one’s theatre ticket there was a disclaimer that “the management reserves the right to make any alterations to the advertised arrangements, programme or cast without being obliged to offer a refund or exchange”. (I copied this verbatim from the back of a ticket to an event at Sadlers Wells dated February 2018). That was the deal, and it applied from top to bottom. Griffith James, a much-missed Company Manager once told me that in the early 1970s, when putting a sign outside the Haymarket Theatre Royal stating that “Miss Ingrid Bergman will not be appearing today”, a disappointed fan kicked him in the shins. Repeatedly. Now, while I do not wish a haematoma of the tibia on anyone, he was simply doing his job, and the angry fan was out of order on every count.

What has changed so that producers now feel they must make reparation for what could very reasonably be considered a “circumstance beyond their control”? Is it the perceived status of celebrities and stars? The attitude of the audience? Where does this leave fellow theatre producers? And what about understudies?

“…a disappointed fan kicked him in the shins. Repeatedly. “

I believe the answer is a subtle mix of some of the above. Big popular musicals, especially those based on films or jukebox musicals with their roots in pop, often attract an audience more used to seeking their entertainment in cinemas and concert venues. A celluloid star will always be available on request, and if a band cannot appear for whatever reason, the gig is cancelled, usually with the promise of a refund. So perhaps some fans expect the protocol of cinemas and concert venues to apply in a theatre setting too. Then again, where individuals have been voted to a high-profile position by a TV or online audience, the audience have physically assisted in that rise, and that changes the relationship. Instead of just appreciating a performer, the audience are now stakeholders in their celebrity, and they may well feel that their investment gives them certain rights. It could be that producers are already responding to this perceived sea change in the performer/audience relationship before it has been openly articulated.

All musical fans know that being an understudy can be a fast-track to stardom, just look at the role of Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. Or consider the real-life situation last year when Steph Parry rushed from Mamma Mia! just one block away to help out covering the star’s sudden indisposition in the second act at 42nd Street’s revival at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, to huge popular acclaim (and a contract to play the lead later on during the revival’s near two-year run). While we can all name our favourite icons in the ‘There’ll never be another……… (fill in as required)’ debate, when it comes to a show, no one is irreplaceable. Another current West End favourite, All About Eve, can tell us all about that!

Being a producer is one of the easiest ways to lose money there is. To survive, producers must sell tickets, consequently they engage artists with a substantial public profile, and presumably an eager following. But what is the criteria whereby one artist can be replaced by an understudy without comment, yet the same producers will offer a ticket exchange if another cast member is off? Surely by discriminating between performers producers are making a rod for their own backs? While offering to exchange tickets may appear generous in the short term, are the public missing out on the chance to see fresh talent given a chance? Think what it did for  Peggy Sawyer. She might have gone out there a nobody, but she came back a star!

Text and photograph Copyright 2019 Marilyn Cutts

Catching up with…..writer Rose Lewenstein

Rose Lewenstein is the writer of COUGAR (playing at the Orange Tree, Richmond, until March 2), an award-nominated intense two- hander about sex, climate change and consumption

Thanks for chatting with us, Rose. COUGAR is a really compelling piece of theatre. Where did the germ of the idea for the show come from?

It’s hard to pinpoint because the play didn’t start with a clear idea of what it was. It grew from thoughts and conversations around the way we consume stuff and each other. I actually started working on it about six years ago and I must have had a lot more time back then to just write and write until something revealed itself. And from that I became interested in the impossibility of this very intense relationship that seems completely cut off from the outside world.

When we chatted after the show, you said that you were still thinking about whether the play is intimate or epic. Have you had any more thoughts since then? (I, personally, think it succeeds as being both.)

I still don’t know. I guess the obvious answer is intimate, because it’s a two-hander set in one room (or many versions of one room) that focuses on a relationship. Nothing about that sounds epic. But to me it is, because it’s really about how we’re heading towards disaster and the question is what do people do in the face of disaster? 

One of the things that audiences love most about the Orange Tree is the intimacy of this in the round, 180-seater. You mentioned that each time you saw the play you have sat in a different part of the auditorium. What has that shown you?

That is one of my favourite things about the Orange Tree. You have a completely different perspective every time you see a play there. And the way Chelsea (the director) and Rosanna (the designer) have utilised the space with COUGAR is really amazing because you’re never missing out. When I was rewriting last year I had that space in mind and I think knowing it would be in the round really informed the writing of it. I was almost picturing a gladiator area or something like that, where we’re looking down on these characters who are tearing each other to pieces.

Have you had any unexpected reactions to the work?

My friend said that watching it was like being put in a washing machine…

The show is incredibly demanding in terms of movement and timing as well as technically. What impact, if any, did that have on the casting process?

It just meant we needed shit-hot actors. They literally don’t get a break. When I was writing it I was obviously more concerned with the rhythm and the arc and what it meant and I wasn’t ever thinking, Oh this will be really hard for the actors! Charlotte and Mike are brilliant, both technically and in the ways they inhabit the roles, but they also have this amazing chemistry and that’s something quite difficult to plan for during casting.

We are seeing a lot more plays run straight through without intervals. Why did you decide that was the best structure for COUGAR?

It’s a very intense play. I mean, two characters, eighty scenes! So one reason is that I can’t really see it being long enough for an interval because I’m not sure how much more of that an audience could take. And having watched it again and again now, in the hands of two incredible actors, it’s become clear that play is performed in one breath. And that sensory through-line feels important when its structure and form is quite disjointed.

The show is being co-produced with the renowned English Touring Theatre. Does this mean that we can expect a tour of the show soon?

I don’t know, you’ll have to ask ETT!

If our readers are thinking about seeing the show, what would you say to entice them along?

Erm… sex and climate change? But I also think Chelsea and the team have created a visually stunning piece of art. It’s visceral. You won’t be bored. And it’s quite short, so plenty of time for the pub afterwards.

Finally, what would you like audiences to take away from the show?

I’d like them to feel full

Thanks Rose! 

Readers will also be interested to know that COUGAR’s director Chelsea Walker has been OFFIE-nominated (Off West End Theatre Awards)

Rose Lewenstein is the writer of COUGAR (playing at the Orange Tree, Richmond, until March 2)