In the early 1930s my father and stepmother set up a theatre in Bolton. Built on a former graveyard next to the Hanover Street gasworks, it was one of the chain of “Little Theatres” that formed the backbone of pre-war English amateur drama and it was here, in 1937, at the age of seven, that I saw my first show—“Fifinella”, a children’s play by the multimedia mogul Basil Dean. It began with two ladies in bearskins guarding the palace gates, but hardly had they sloped halberds than my cousin Robin and a girl two seats away started whispering about the performance. They were saying it was rubbish. They then said so again more loudly, and when people began shushing them they got up and barged their way to the end of the row, then down the aisle and onto the stage, at which point the penny finally dropped that they were part of the entertainment.
That was my first taste of how the theatre works. You could film Robin’s trick, but the result would be stone dead compared with the physical thrill of being there and tasting the disruption. Although I couldn’t have explained this at the time, I understood that as soon as the dramatic pretence begins, it generates a force field that becomes as tangible as barbed wire if anyone tries to walk through it.
I remember that moment perfectly, but have long forgotten what happened after it. Much the same goes for my memory of 40-odd years of theatre reviewing, which left the impression that most productions chug along on the safe old rails, but from time to time something happens, like the dazzling reflection from a cat’s eyes, that opens up the inner workings of the stage. Whether it’s a good idea for the public to pry into these secrets is a matter of dispute. But for me, the matter was settled from the moment of witnessing the collapse of the palace guard, and I have been on the lookout for “Fifinella” moments ever since.
As a teenager in the 1940s I was well placed to find them. Nearby Manchester was a prime touring date, and even the Bolton Grand attracted big names like Edith Evans. My father and his wife Norma both had freelance acting jobs at the BBC’s Manchester studios. One of their BBC acquaintances, who sometimes stayed at our house, was a documentary-maker, Joan Littlewood, who was said to do a bit of theatre on the side. When she was there they used to have spirited late-night discussions about the commedia dell’arte (whatever that was), and when she’d gone they were apt to chortle over the double entendres in her countryside commentaries (“with a sigh of relief, I grasped the end of his shepherd’s crook”) and mock her eccentric theatrical taste. They both believed in the primacy of the voice, and so far as radio was concerned it was easy to agree with that. Beyond radio, though, it meant that star actors were divinely appointed to rule the roost. Littlewood, it seemed, had other ideas.
One night during the war they took me along to a show of hers at the Miners’ Hall. The piece, by Littlewood’s partner, the folk singer Ewan MacColl, was “Johnny Noble”, a heroic fable of the war at sea, showing a merchant convoy under attack from German U-boats. There was a cast of six, and the set consisted of a piece of rope. MacColl and Littlewood, spotlit in matching black raincoats, delivered a bardic commentary on the action from either flank. Between them, in near darkness, the rope was strung with port and starboard lights that heaved and dipped with the rhythm of the waves. It made me seasick to look at. Then the bombardment began, and the crew went into combat with a Bofors gun—which consisted of four actors, three of them playing the gun with full recoil mechanism and the fourth loading and firing. It was unutterably thrilling. I had never imagined the possibility of such a thing, and the illusion was total. At the same time, I remained fully aware of sitting in this seedy hall watching some actors tying themselves up in knots. My parents admired the lighting, but thought the show coarsely propagandist. For me it triggered the idea that theatre consists of two simultaneous realities—the reality of the actor’s performance and the reality of the spectator’s presence in his seat—with attention continually switching from one to the other.
Picture: “Seducing everyone in the house”—Laurence Olivier as Richard III in the Old Vic’s 1944-45 production, with Joyce Redman as Lady Anne