For the first in a series called The Time Travel Theatre Trip, we are all off to the Vaudeville Theatre in London, in the year 1981, to see a well-cast and entertaining Noel Coward comedy, PRESENT LAUGHTER.
As I remember, John Gale produced the show first at Greenwich Theatre, and then brought it in to the West End for a respectable run which did very good business. The casting is well-nigh perfect in my opinion. Donald Sinden is glorious in full bluster as Garry Essendine; Dinah Sheridan still beautiful and elegant, Gwen Watford always a most respected actress and solid support. And all, of course, happy to be working….
What is particularly eye-catching is that, uncredited on the external advertising, two of the lesser supporting players are omitted; Belinda Lang, still doing sterling work onstage today in 2019, and also one Julian Fellowes. I wonder what happened to him……? (NB He was a delight here as the annoying Roland Maule)
I saw this early in its Vaudeville Theatre run and soon after the BBC cameras came in and recorded it to show as a TV schedule highlight. Back in those days a West End show was occasionally a TV highlight; in the 1960s Brian Rix farces from the Whitehall were a regular Christmas TV event for some years, proving immensely popular with theatre and television audiences.
How did they shoot PRESENT LAUGHTER back then? With the limited technology of 1981, two or three consecutive performances were recorded with cameras sat in the stalls and a couple of side boxes. The best scenes from each performance were then selected to form the eventual broadcast whole.
Anyway, time to sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy going to the theatre in 1981. Who’s got the popcorn?……..
Part One (runs 1 hour 7 mins)
INTERVAL TIME. Take 15 minutes off to pop to the loo, grab a drink or an ice cream, and get back to your seat in good time. When you are ready, it’s on to…..
Part Two (runs 1 hour 19 mins)
With acknowledgement and thanks to the show’s YouTube poster E.W.R. Many
In remembrance of a singular figure now, sadly, fading from memory, and in celebration of LGBTQI+ Pride, I thought that you might like to hear about an evening out I had almost forty years ago.
It was a chilly Friday evening in 1981 that a friend and I approached the Duke of York’s Theatre in St Martin’s Lane, full of anticipation and curiosity. An Evening with Quentin Crisp, the displays announced tastefully. We swept through the outer doors – into a thoroughly empty foyer. Let us remember that this was the end of a long and successful run, and an early house at that (Fridays, 6 and 8.30).
Quentin Crisp had shot to fame after John Hurt portrayed him to great acclaim on TV in a dramatised biography, The Naked Civil Servant, in 1975 and now, in his latter years he was an unexpected international celebrity, holding forth about everything under the sun in his stage show which ran, almost unchanged, for many years, across the UK and America. And now, he was back here finishing off a run in London- quietly, it seemed.
A rather subdued atmosphere hung over the theatre as we shuffled in to the early house. Seven of us in the stalls, a similar number in the dress circle. The auditorium was as cold and silent as at a wake.
The house lights dimmed and Crisp made his entrance to a hearty round of applause from the tiny throng. “Good evening”, he said. “Now before we get started, I’d like to do a little housekeeping. There’s a first time for everything…..Would you“, he said in his leisurely voice, swivelling a somewhat gnarled – but beautifully manicured – finger to the handful of people in the dress circle “…like to come down here and join us?” It was more of a requirement than an invitation, and those upstairs eagerly came and joined the handful of us in the front stalls. Crisp directed the new arrivals to their new seats, and made us into a single cosy group, and then the show began. Crisp snapped into his delivery like a seasoned pro, effortlessly slipping into the well-worn groove of his material.
He began: “I’ve been forbidden to describe this evening as a straight talk from a bent speaker. So instead, let’s say it’s like a consultation with a psychiatrist who is madder than you are.”
He proceeded to run the gamut, with advice, amusing anecdotes and shameless plugs for his book, which he would be signing in the foyer at the end of the show. After an interval, he answered written questions from the audience with his trademark dry wit and fun. And that oft-impersonated voice! A hint of a nasal drawl, like gravel mixed with glitter, was special to hear “live”. With one of the smallest audiences I have ever been with, I can say it was one of the most memorable nights in the theatre that I have ever had.
At the show’s conclusion, after a small hiatus, the man himself appeared in the foyer, with an Annapurna of paperbacks by his side, surreally out of proportion to the size of the attending group. For a moment I didn’t know if we were supposed to buy them or climb them.
I counted the group. Every single person had stayed.
He signed my book. His new Fontana paperback, entitled ‘How to Become A Virgin’. He signed everyone’s book. He was most polite, respectful and very grateful, and took time to inscribe the books clearly for each of us. And then he was gone, ushered back through the auditorium by the front of house team, who as I remember, looked unsettlingly like the gang in the 1955 Ealing film The Ladykillers.
We went out into the night, warmed by the experience of having spent a couple of hours in the company of a person who had spent a lifetime standing up for who he was – although it attracted the wrong kind of attention – and won. A little part of us had changed forever; we would never forget the night that we met Quentin Crisp.
Quentin Crisp died in 1999, aged 90, having humorously decided to live for a century “with a decade off for good behaviour”. He left behind a string of books, stage appearances and media interviews. Never conveniently categorised in life or death, he remains an interesting figure for his often controversial views and his ability to turn a good one-liner, as well as his bravery in standing out and being himself. In his final writings, he came to the realisation that he was more a trans woman than a gay man, which revealed one final fascinating facet of the person we knew as Quentin Crisp.
Of the stage show, there was a sound recording made in New York in February 1979 which became a best-selling double LP (cover above) released by DRG, and the video recording below was made a little later, I think 1983/4.
I am delighted to say that I have tracked down this show on YouTube (below), so that you can take a trip back in time. Enjoy a slice of LGBTQ history! And Happy Pride!