Issuu on Google+


Section 1: Salad Days


Section 1: Salad Days

Section 1 Salad Days


Nicholas Newton

Joint Artistic Director 1972–4

Section 1: Salad Days

O

ne morning in the spring of 1972 I put my head round the door of the first-floor officecum-wardrobe, props store and office of the Bush Theatre and with trepidation asked the man staring disconsolately out onto Shepherds Bush Green, ‘What can I usefully do?’ to which the man, relieved that his morning prayer had been answered, replied, ‘You could help organise things in here.’ So started my three-year roller-coaster journey to keep the Bush Theatre alive. The man sitting at the window sucking on his pipe was Brian McDermott, an endearing and suitably determined advocate of fringe theatre which, with the Open Space, the King’s Head (then just eight weeks old), and now the Bush, was in its infancy. His motive for starting the Bush was, let’s be clear, self advancement. He had written an adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector which had opened the Kings Head, but after eight weeks Dan Crawford, the indomitable producer and founder of pub theatre, had quite sensibly asked Brian to find a new home for his play, as he wanted to produce other plays at his Islington home. Thus Brian decamped with the play and what stage management he could muster to a room above an untamed Irish pub – more used to lock-ins with family than thespians – recently vacated by Lionel Blair’s dance studio. But by the end of the first week Brian and his co-star were virtually on their own, as what staff there was relied solely on the takings for their living, which were modest to say the least. Into this barren scene I appeared, having returned recently from New York where, to my great good fortune, I had witnessed Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On my return to London, aged 22, I was utterly determined to devote my life to the theatre. Within another week or so of that fateful day, the remainder of the stage management had left, and Brian proposed that I stage manage, as well as organize the box office; run around getting leaflets produced and distributed; deal with the phone (which seemed to ring constantly); talk to press, literary agents, actors; buy props from our

Jack Munyard

Previous pages: Robbie Coltrane in The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie, by Albert Innaurato, 1978.

The Ballygombeen Bequest: Climbing the stairs to take my seat, I followed round a sharp corner to find myself staring down the barrel of an automatic weapon, held by a soldier in full operational battle dress. As the play started, I was still recovering from the shock. The use of such techniques is very much part of the Bush Theatre’s ability to challenge our perceptions. (I believe the play’s run was ‘shortened’ by a libel action – which would not be surprising for the Bush in that period!)

18

Section 1: Salad Days


Nicholas Newton

meagre resources; attempt to master contracts; answer letters; read scripts and sweepup, as – whatever else happened – Brian and I were determined to keep the theatre going. Whatever it took we were going to do, and in dire times this even involved Brian standing at Speaker’s Corner and proclaiming the virtues of the Bush as I handed out leaflets against the backdrop of the police telling us that we were not allowed to advertise in Hyde Park. By this point The Collector had run its course and we were really down to whatever we could find to keep the theatre from going dark, our constant refrain. Thus started a series of patched-together shows, some that lasted as little as a week, the most frail of which was our repost to The Female Eunuch which involved a near-naked young actress clothed solely in a see-through plastic mac reading extracts from a book condemning Germaine Greer. It was not a great crowd pleaser, even if she did have nice tits. Amidst our mounting concern as the box office dwindled and Brian increasingly resorted to more extraordinary attempts to create an audience, two events happened. John McGrath of 7:84 got in touch, and Jane Howell, who was running the Northcott Theatre, invited me to Exeter, as she wanted to bring Edward Bond’s The Pope’s Wedding to London, a singular feat, as the Northcott’s stage was somewhat larger than the whole of the Bush’s auditorium.

Nicholas Newton

19

Above: Lindsay Kemp preparing for a performance of Flowers in 1974. Inset: An extract from the first edition of Pub Theatre magazine.


Section 1: Salad Days The Bush in 1974.

John’s form of political theatre alerted the critics that we should be considered worthy of reviewing, and to our great delight Harold Hobson asked to visit. Brian and I, forming a human cradle, lifted him up the winding stairs and deposited him like a visiting Roman consul on his seat. From that moment other critics started to come. Around this time, and in a desperate attempt to create some identity for the fledgling operation, the idea emerged that we should produce only new work, and somehow this just grew into policy. The hunt was on to find new plays to commission, and when one day in 1973 Brian proposed we present a season of work against ‘A Fanfare for Europe’ – Britain’s official cultural programme in support of our entry into the European Common Market – the word went out to all the writers we knew. To our dismay only one play came in, a political piece dressed up as a pantomime. Tederella, by David Edgar, cast Edward Heath as Cinderella left in the cold at the hour of the first European ball. Brian had departed temporarily to earn some money acting in Z Cars and I was left in charge. In an attempt to avoid the play seeming pious I had the notion of casting two transvestites as the ugly sisters whom we had met at an event to prevent the closure of Queensway’s Turkish Baths. (We were forever supporting other hard-pressed causes in west London, especially if it might bring us publicity and an audience.) At the same time I was feverishly searching for money to put on the risky venture. I even rang Binkie Beaumont to ask for his support. The telephone call is still etched in my memory. It consisted of me extolling the virtues of our cause for five minutes, and the aged producer saying ‘no’.

20

Section 1: Salad Days


Nicholas Newton

Jean Fredericks and Tony Chantell, the former large, the latter willowy, proved to be a riot of colour and excess, and brought the house down every night. Even Nicholas de Jongh, then reviewing for the Guardian, and not always known for his praise, enthused, ‘that it succeeds as an evening of raucous humour and gorgeous absurdity is not a tribute to the “political” nature of Mr Edgar’s pantomime, its glory is its transvestite daring and the absurdities that proceed from all that.’ When Brian came back in time to see it before Christmas, fearing that the Bush had gone under, he found instead that we were bursting at the seams, and at long last we had arrived. From this success we commissioned David to write another satire for us, this time on the Watergate scandal, in which Richard Nixon became Richard III in Dick Deterred (which came in as a play but went on stage as a musical). Now other writers were at our door. We had presented new plays by John McGrath, Adrian Mitchell, Edward Bond, David Edgar, David Mowat and Howard Barker, amongst others. Within three years we had presented over 30 productions, and by 1974 – with Dick Deterred and Lindsay Kemp’s Flowers – we had moved beyond the confines of our small theatre, first to the theatre at the ICA and soon, with Stephen Poliakoff’s City Sugar, to the West End. In just three years the Bush was on the map and being talked about. It was time for new people to take up the reins and shoulder some of the sweat and toil, but by now it had a small Arts Council subsidy to help build a fully producing theatre.

Nicholas Newton

21


Jack Shepherd Section 1: Salad Days

I

n the autumn of 1972 I got a phone call from Tony Haygarth: did I want to play Dracula, in a version of the story that was due to be produced at the Bush Theatre? He was full of enthusiasm for the project, telling me that he’d been in it before at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, under the direction of Max Stafford Clark. The concept was ingenious. It told the story of Dracula, pretty much as Bram Stoker had imagined it, but woven into the narrative was a tapestry of associations brought to the rehearsals by the cast and the writers involved. When I read the script, I could see that the story had been deconstructed during the original workshop, and then reassembled in such a way that it not only hinted at meanings hidden underneath the narrative, but that it also revealed what the Dracula myth meant, on a personal level, to all the people involved in the play’s creation. In this sense, I suppose, it was postmodernist theatre well ahead of its time. Not that any of us were aware of that back in 1972. For example Jonathan Harker’s journey into the depths of Castle Dracula was staged in such a way as to suggest a descent into the unconscious mind. The statues that Harker encounters on his way downwards were weaving a hypnotic spell around him, spinning in

Jack Shepherd, 1973.

22

Section 1: Salad Days


O rose thou art sick. The invisible worm That flies in the night In the howling storm: Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy. At which point, I emanated, ‘like the red eyes of a rat in the darkness,’ and bit her lovingly on the throat. Perhaps the most frightening moment in the play is when Dracula kills the madman Renfield in his cell. The full horror of this sequence was achieved by way of an action replay with Van Helsing (Dracula’s nemesis) showing Lucy around the asylum. When they reach the madman’s cell, the inmate has a fit and seems to hurl himself against the back wall before slithering lifeless to the ground. It’s at this point that the story starts to travel backwards in time. Van Helsing goes into trance. His speech slows and deepens, as a tape does when it’s played at the wrong speed. And as he mumbles arcane fragments drawn from the Hermetic mysteries, Renfield slowly, very slowly, gets up from the floor, and the audience is treated to a slow-motion replay of the event they’ve just witnessed: Dracula (invisible in the previous sequence) seizes Renfield by the arm and starts to spin him slowly round, finally cracking his skull against the back wall.

Jack Shepherd

23

Jack Shepherd

the darkness and murmuring dark alchemical secrets. This wasn’t as pretentious as it might sound, for underlying the production’s loftier ambitions lay the simple objective of enclosing the audience in a small space and then scaring the living daylights out of them. The stage was painted black, the auditorium was painted black, the costumes were black; this uniformity broken only by the whiteness of our faces and hands, and the occasional splashes of blood. The music was both subtle and unnerving. The frames of defunct pianos had been screwed to the walls of both the stage and the auditorium, and whenever one of us passed, the swish of our cloaks against the strings would produce a terrible chord, which inevitably evoked in me the sense of something rotten beneath the floorboards. In a sense, the text was a kind of collage. It wasn’t fixed in any way. No one individual was claiming exclusive ownership. I knew that Stanley Eveling had written some of it, but I didn’t know which bits. William Blake had even been pressed into service. At the close of the first half, Lucy, sitting alone on stage, articulates her terrible sense of expectancy by murmuring Blake’s poem ‘The sick rose,’ as a musical box tinkles in the background.


Section 1: Salad Days Kitty Hawk, 1975.

And as blood and hair stream down the brickwork, he slowly turns to Lucy and bites her savagely on the neck. With the added use of blood capsules, saliva and strobe lighting, the effect on the audience – breathless and claustrophobic inside what must have felt like a black box – was profoundly intimidating, their fear invariably expressed through the exhalation of one simple word: ‘Shit’. That’s what they always said, sometimes 40 or so at a time. ‘Shit!’ You could sense in that moment that they wished they’d never come. It was just a bit too frightening for a good evening out. Still, they had paid for the ticket. Throughout rehearsals, the director, Colin McCormack encouraged us to make our own contribution. He had played Jonathan Harker in the earlier production and was determined to capture the spirit of the original. Aside from Tony Haygarth, who had played Van Helsing the first time round… the new company included Alun Armstrong as Renfield, and Petra Markham and Anne Holloway as Lucy and Mina. What I brought to the production was a hint of optimism at the very end. I was reading Jung at the time, and I’d learned that it was useless to try and deny the darkness within. You can’t simply be a ray of sunshine all your life, you have to acknowledge the possibility for evil within yourself and balance it with the good. In this sense, Dracula can never be banished, he has to be accommodated within the psyche. And so at the end of the play, the survivor Mina talks of a feeling she has of being balanced between two galloping horses, one white and the other black, and how she’s now able to steer her way forward with both hands firmly on the reins. ‘And I can feel my heart beating…’ she adds, ‘ and it makes me glad.’ Looking back, I suppose the play was very much a creation of the 1960s: that sense of people ‘coming together,’ and suppressing their individuality for the sake of the whole (one of the more positive aspects of the hippy culture of the time). It’s a philosophy I first came across in the early 60s, when I wandered into an Edinburgh bookshop at Festival time. I was handed a cup of coffee and asked by the American owner if I might like to come to a poetry reading later in the day. ‘You mean I don’t have to pay?’ I think I blurted out. The man who offered me the coffee was Jim Haynes, the founder of the Traverse Theatre and perhaps the guiding spirit behind the production.

24

Section 1: Salad Days


I played the Duchess of Malfi in The Traverse Workshop Theatre’s production of David Mowat’s Amalfi in 1973. Max Stafford Clark directed it, and his big memory is of a performance when some stage management glitch meant the second half didn’t start, and the audience was left staring at me in a very revealing frock (transparent purple chiffon, no undies), sitting on a rostra. Afterwards, a friend credited it with being a highly significant and dramatic moment, redolent with meaning. And so it was. Especially for the men in the audience. I also appeared in Tederella – a satirical Christmas panto by David Edgar – with Ted Heath portrayed as a Cinders wanting to join the common market and a froggie Prince Charming (moi) playing hard to get. Mike Wearing, who directed it, remembers standing in for Malcolm Ingrams, who’d sustained injury (see below) – and throwing us all duff cues (oh yes!). He fondly recalled the two Divaesque drag queens Tony Chantell and Jean Fredericks, who played the ugly sisters. Jean was a towering and rather scary presence. Tony was the sweetest ladyboy – we shared a dressing room and many tips on make-up. I remember the perfectly shaped pubescent breasts he was growing prior to full-on sex change. Sue Lefton was drafted in to choreograph the dances, and she arranged a wicked ‘Apache’ between me, as Prince Charmant, and Malcolm Ingrams, playing Tederella. At one point I whirled all 15 stone of him round my head, letting go of him so he fell on his bum accompanied by crashing cymbals. Sue also choreographed my legendary ‘chair dance’ in which, referencing Christine Keeler and wearing the teeniest satin hot-pants, I performed a daring, erotic number with a chair. It left critic Nic de Jongh so breathless his review said I was the actress with the longest legs in London. And mostly they were higher than my head. Ah, those were the days! I seemed to have my clothes off more often than on, so good thing it was only the legs he mentioned.

Jack Shepherd

25

Jack Shepherd

Carole Hayman


Peter Wilson

Joint Artistic Director 1975–7

Section 1: Salad Days Flux is the expected state for a newly founded theatre, and that was particularly true in the early days at the Bush. Actors, directors, ADs, the pub – all was change. One of the few fixtures throughout the Theatre’s first 20-or-so years was Nobby Clark, stage photographer extraordinaire. Here he is in the 1970s, caught on the other side of the lens.

It was all about people. Our job, as funded by the Arts Council and Hammersmith and Fulham, was to discover and showcase good new writing. Our case officer at 105 Piccadilly was Peter Farago, who later led Cameron Mackintosh to Les Miserables. Brian McDermott had set the Bush up as a showcase for his own version of John Fowles’ The Collector. Somehow he’d persuaded Laurence Harbottle, who had been Binkie Beaumont’s lawyer, to be the Chair. I joined Howard Gibbins (later Clare Francis’ quartermaster, and whose then wife Diana was working at Peggy Ramsay’s literary agency), who was running the theatre in tandem with my friend and meal ticket Luke Randolph. Howard, long, lean, funny, elegant, and cosmopolitan, sucking contentedly on a menthol, contrasted perfectly with Luke, blond, anxious, guitar-playing Marlboro man prone to bouts of depression. Howard did the accounts, poorly, in a blizzard of Tippex, which exhausted the patience of our entertaining auditor Robert Breckman. Luke was our production manager, and went on to be Dodi al Fayed’s moneyman for his film work. My job was to augment Howard and Luke’s work, while taking the strain off both of them in terms of what we thought of as forward planning. As we were a venue for new writing, this meant reading a lot of scripts. Every fortnight another would arrive from Anthony Minghella. Easy to read, long on words, thoughtful, literary and absorbing. And wholly unstageable until Whale Music, which I’m sorry we didn’t produce. David Bowie and Lindsay Kemp, beautiful, gentle, bare-chested and androgynous, were at the Bush that spring in Kemp’s own adaptation of Jean Genet’s Flowers. The first show I worked on was Stephen Poliakoff’s Hitting Town (a one-acter performed in conjunction with Nicolette Marvin’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More. Nicolette – the daughter of the energetic Blanche Marvin – went on to produce The Shawshank Redemption). I recorded traffic effects at three in the morning by poking the microphone out of the window, for which I needed Luke to stop making the set in the office for a couple of minutes. Jimmy Aubrey was our star, famous for his Ralph in Peter Brook’s film of Lord of the Flies. Judy Monaghan and Lynn Miller made up the cast. Judy hated the director, called him Tim Flyweight (a nickname contradicted by his subsequent career) and didn’t see why he was being paid so that she could teach him how to direct. We stole elements of the set from some of the shops around Shepherd’s Bush Green. Mike Bradwell’s Hull Truck punctuated the year. Mike had learned how to improvize with Mike Leigh, and the Truck plays were products of his method. Rachel Bell was the best – apart from Mike himself, of course.

26

Section 1: Salad Days


Hannah and Evelyn O’Brien (in memory of Danny O’Brien) A tribute to a theatre which has provided a special, intimate atmosphere for many years, and makes the audience feel included in a play – whether they have asked to be or not: When my dad was dating my mum in 1976, he took her to see a play at the Bush where the set was just a room with a mantelpiece. My dad put his pint on the mantel while he helped my mum with her coat when the play suddenly started and he had to sit there watching his pint as part of the scene. He couldn’t remember the play, but he never forgot his pint.

Peter Wilson

” 27

Peter Wilson

The Truckers, who didn’t really have London bases, spent the days in the theatre office watching the comings and goings from the gents public toilet on Shepherd’s Bush opposite. It had been the scene – though we didn’t know this – of Joe Orton’s ‘daisy chain’, and was plainly still fit for purpose. So bets were laid as to how long each gent would spend in the toilet, and as they emerged there would be sporadic cheering from the window opposite. I bet they were surprised. Mel Smith directed, brilliantly, Terence Greer’s play Nobody Knew They Were There, with a cast of Gaye Brown, Marion Fiddick and Yvonne Gilan (mother of A.A. Gill, but at that time famous as Madame Peignoir in an episode of Fawlty Towers). Hilary Westlake and David Gale brought Lumiere and Son’s White Men Dancing, with a cast of white rats that refused to cooperate. John Bull’s Puncture Repair Kit were there for a couple of weeks, as was the world premiere of Robert Holman’s German Skerries, starring the brilliant Paul Copley and Natasha Pyne. And in the boiling summer of 1976, Don Sumpter, Caro Blakiston, Jeff Chiswick, Stuart Fox, Oliver Smith and others performed David Mouchtar-Samurai’s eccentric production of Brecht’s Edward II in a tent on Shepherd’s Bush Green, and subsequently on a less-than-triumphant tour of the UK. Roddy Maude-Roxby (from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In!), Ric Morgan and Ben Benison came with Theatre Machine, whose theories reached back to Bill Gaskill, George Devine and the pioneers at the Royal Court, and forward to Mark Rylance. Tim Fywell directed Stephen Poliakoff’s City Sugar, a follow-up to Hitting Town, which featured an extraordinary performance by John Shrapnel as Leonard Brazil. Then as now the West End lost its nerve


Section 1: Salad Days

when it came to stellar performances from artists who weren’t famous enough, so John was recast for the West End and a wholly inadequate Adam Faith led the production down the pan. The first Christmas we did a pantomime featuring Tim Albery, Ken Morley and Howard Lew Lewis. Not really a success, so we cast around for alternatives, to fit our image. At that time the Daily Mirror was serialising The Fosdyke Saga (‘a classic tale of struggle, power, personalities and tripe’), Bill Tidy’s cartoon pastiche of The Forsyte Saga based around the lives of Josiah Fosdyke, a Northern tripe tycoon, and his archenemy Roger Ditchley. Mike and Alan Plater got the idea that this would make an ideal Christmas entertainment, so they and I made an appointment to visit Tidy in Southport to get his blessing and guidance. We spent a very happy and increasingly drunk afternoon with Tidy in his basement billiard room. I remember a number of his Italian decorator brothers-in-law (or it may

28

Section 1: Salad Days


Peter Wilson

The Fosdyke Saga Two, 1977. Jim Broadbent, bearded.

have been one coming round several times) asking for instructions which he couldn’t give, him having no Italian and them speaking no English. The resultant musical, The Fosdyke Saga, was one of the happiest and most innocent entertainments I’ve known. Full houses, Phil Jackson leering away as Ditchley, Victoria Plum hurling raw tripe into the laps of our genteel West London customers, inviting them to join her in a chorus of the Tripe Anthem. And then Simon Stokes suggested that we should advertise in the Daily Mirror, and Howard, Luke and I knew it was time to move on. Mike gave me as my leaving present ‘The All-Purpose Acme Sowter Kit’, inspired by the least funny line in all of Shakespearean comedy, and containing rubber noses, sneezing powder, revolving bow ties and suggestive objects guaranteed to take the audience’s attention away from whatever you’re saying. It has been a great inspiration.

Peter Wilson

29


Stephen Poliakoff Section 1: Salad Days

I

n the summer of 1973, I dropped out of my history course at Cambridge and returned home to live with my parents. I retreated to a room at the top of the house and vowed I was going to become a professional playwright within a year. During the day, I read plays for the Hampstead Theatre and in the evening I was trying to write an epic work about the First World War. For a whole year I hardly left the room, but as the summer of ’74 dawned I was still striving to get my first proper production on in London. Then, wandering along the street one day, I bumped into a friend of mine, the director Tim Fywell. He told me there was this small theatre above a pub in Shepherd’s Bush and asked if I fancied writing a play for them. I leapt at the chance, blurting out that I had at least three great ideas and he should arrange a meeting as soon as possible. The truth was, I had absolutely no new ideas but I was gambling on thinking of something by the time the meeting was arranged. I dashed straight back home and sat at my desk, willing inspiration to strike. But it didn’t. The day came for the meeting and my mind was still completely blank. I remember very clearly walking slightly behind Tim towards the theatre, dragging my feet, trying desperately to prolong the journey so that I could come up with a strategy. We reached the narrow staircase that led up to the theatre, and I still had no idea what I was going to say. A figure appeared at the top of the stairs, the Co-Artistic Director Howard Gibbins, and asked who we were. He was immaculately dressed and stared down at me through small glasses that glinted in the light. He was literally towering above us, an image of icy authority, which transported me straight back to school. Suddenly an idea hit me about two ex-public school brothers living in a comfortable west London apartment, who deal drugs to the local kids while inhabiting a strange claustrophobic world of their own. By the time I reached Howard at the top of the stairs, I had enough of a plot to stumble through a successful meeting. It was a startling piece of luck, since it was the only time in my life that an idea has come to me that quickly and in such a complete form. So started an extraordinary year for me at the Bush, when I had three plays performed, a new one every four months. The story of the two drug-dealing brothers became The Carnation Gang. It was followed by my first attempt to portray brother and sister incest, Hitting Town. I wrote the first part in a single night and then got incredibly stuck. But the theatre was excited by the idea and scheduled the play anyway. Tim was casting it by reading my handwritten manuscript to prospective actors, as I wandered around the stark shopping mall on Shepherd’s Bush Green trying to work out the second half. Hitting Town inhabits a world of Wimpy Bars, concrete walkways and subterranean discos, and I realized I was pouring the landscape that surrounded the theatre straight into the play. When Hitting Town opened, it seemed to fit the intimate auditorium perfectly, the actors exuding a dangerous and sexy energy on the neon and concrete set.

Opposite: Hitting Town, 1975.

30

Section 1: Salad Days


Stephen Poliakoff

Nicholas Newton

31


Section 1: Salad Days

The atmosphere of the Bush at that time was one of controlled chaos; tremendous risks were taken with insouciant calm by the management. My last play at the Bush, for instance, City Sugar, was scheduled before I had written a single word. This was partly due to the fact that Hitting Town had been a hit, had gone on tour and had been sold to TV (where it caused a stir a year later when Mary Whitehouse tried to have it prosecuted for obscenity). But it was also because in the anarchic atmosphere of the 70s, showing such reckless faith in a young writer seemed a perfectly natural thing to do. I have to admit it was extremely exciting, having plays scheduled before I’d even started them. I loved the challenge, and the feeling that there was no safety net. City Sugar is about a local disc jockey dominating the airwaves in the first days of commercial radio in this country. It follows a week in his life as he runs a brutal promotional competition aimed at the teenage fans of his show. Outside the window of the Bush, as we rehearsed the play, fans of the Bay City Rollers were massing on the pavement. They were queuing to see them perform at the Empire next door, and I would walk along the queue chatting to them and urging them to come and see the play. In a very direct way, I was continuing to write about the world that I saw swirling around the Bush itself. Sometimes my plays and this world blurred completely, as the soundtrack of the shows would merge with the deep thud of the music from the pub – directly below the stage the chubby strippers were dancing, often hardly visible through the thick haze of cigarette smoke. As the year progressed I seemed to be spending my entire life at the Bush, for every evening I would watch the audience go in. I had some intriguing encounters on the narrow staircase. I met Harold Pinter in the interval of City Sugar, who told me that he liked the play but it was time for the second act to begin and I should go and round up the rest of the audience. Albert Finney and John Osborne came to see Hitting Town, arriving in a white Rolls Royce. When I was introduced to Osborne, he slipped back into the shadows so I had to squeeze into a dark corner to talk to him. He seemed to be one of the shyest people I had ever met.

32

Section 1: Salad Days


Stephen Poliakoff

Naturally I was thrilled by such encounters, and I assumed that most of my career over the next few years would be spent at the Bush. But one night, a delegation from the National Theatre came to see City Sugar. Shortly afterwards, I was offered the post of resident playwright at the National as it moved into its new South Bank headquarters. I felt surprisingly torn when I received the offer but I knew I couldn’t refuse. I also knew I would be back at the Bush within 18 months or so. I even moved into a flat just round the corner from the Theatre, and therefore walked past it every day. But I never wrote for the Bush again. The management changed, and both the Theatre and I moved on. In just a matter of months, everything seemed totally different. It was the summer of ’76, the hottest of the century, and the whole of London – both the parks and the people – turned a tawny brown. Even the scraggy grass of Shepherd’s Bush Green became the colour of treacle. The burning hot weather coincided with me writing my first play for the National, Strawberry Fields. Such a dramatic summer seemed to act as a natural full stop to my experience at the Bush, a year that still remains one of the most vivid of my life.

Stephen Poliakoff

33

John Shrapnel in City Sugar, 1975. Leon Vitali lurks in the shadows.


Snoo Wilson Section 1: Salad Days

I

n the wee small hours, Tommy the publican, former boxer as wide as he was high, used to donate a bottle of cheap plonk to the stage fitters as he wended his own way to join his family, who slept above the theatre. As the night wore on, the selfless stage fitters’ inhibitions evaporated so that by the hour of the wolf Tommy’s gift of dreadful plonk nearly always got drunk. (Or so sez Dusty Hughes. Ah never recall we was that fussy in dem days.) Forty years ago, anyhow, Dusty and Jenny Topper and Simon Stokes pointed the Bush towards the culturally numinous direction of today, by dint of inspiration, wit, determination, and an unreasonably large number of overnight fitups, early hardships from which the gold dust of Art fitfully and alchemically arose. What was born in the converted uppersupper room in a decaying Victorian pub, with drunks committed to the ground floor, also shared the airwaves with disco nights and Karaoke below. Dusty finally stopped doing fitups, went to his typewriter and wrote Commitments. The play put actors affecting to embrace the mangled ideology of the Workers Revolutionary Party onto a comic griddle, and suddenly all human life was there. What does WRP stand for today? Do our tax pennies pay for their surveillance still? Dusty had the answer then and now, and thus, forever. And oh, how we laughed at his play. The first show I wrote and mounted at the Bush was in the early 70s: The Everest Hotel, written for the three actresses who had been in an early production of a play of mine called Vampire, and were now out of work again. How things change. I had cunningly contrived the latter play so the scenery was supplied by the audiences’ imaginations. Artificial spray snow on a blackboard. There was no need for an overnight fitup, thus I never tasted Tommy’s plonk. A few years later, Dusty directed a revival of my script Vampire at the Bush, with a specially written new third act. That was a star-studded opening. Antony Schaffer, the swaggering author of Broadway and West

34

Section 1: Salad Days


Snoo Wilson

35

Snoo Wilson

End triumph, Sleuth, descended royally. And that night, on Anthony’s arm was the sexy and glamorous Diane Cilento, who the writer had met through his marvellously schlocky cult film The Wicker Man. The film distribution had been bedevilled by the sort of conspiracy of incompetence that left Roeg’s Performance on the shelf for two years, a limbo that as screenwriter I have latterly come to know too well. I now have it from other sources that the late A. Schaffer even when sober was a prickly creature. At any rate, at the first interval, I seemed to have got straight up his nose, for before I said a word, Schaffer, an imposing man, if of medium height, started eyeing me up, or eyeing up me, rather too closely for my comfort. ‘Wha’s this play ABOUT?!’ the marinaded old codger barked, as if I was an upstart junior in his famous advertising agency, which he had only quit in order to conquer Broadway. I struggled to reply before Diane intervened with some practised emollience. Oh, the insolence of youth! Schaffer must have been all of 50 or so at the time; a decade younger than I am today. It’s hard to know where the time goes, and the years when advertising agencies were seen as harbingers of respected talent seem to have fled as well. At my first boarding school, in the years loosely between Suez and the Cuban missile crisis, there used to be 12-inch rulers which carried on their spine the list of the monarchs of England; our site-specific anglo history looked so neat and tidy that way, lined up on the back of a wooden ruler in six point. But then trouble began with remembering the order, never mind the dates. And why, oh why are there so many Edwards? Probably influenced by a childhood spent frowning over rulers, I wrote a play about Wallis Simpson and her spouse, the former King Edward who was (I am not the only one who believes this) an accomplice to murder. The guilty party was the Duke of Windsor at the time of the offence so I used to say about the plot of HRH, it was about ‘Edward VIII – that was’. HRH wasn’t a Bush Play (not that such a species exists, arguably). However it was directed by Simon Callow, who had begun his directing career with my play Loving Reno at the Bush. Anyhow, HRH moved into the West End just as Princess Diana’s death killed West End theatre audience attendance stone dead for a while. Even public places in adenoidal and anhedonic Birmingham where we toured were piled high with bouquets of sumptuous grieving, so we didn’t stand a chance with a play suggesting that some of our Royals were dodgy and maybe a bit too much like the characters in Sleuth.

Opposite: Diana Patrick and Patti Love in Vampire, 1977.


Section 1: Salad Days

Looking at the back of the Bush’s Kings and Queens on Time’s 12-inch ruler, there is the reign of Dusty The Inimitable, then there is the joint throne of Simon Stokes and Jenny Topper, then King Dominic Dromgoole, then Caesar Mike Bradwell, and today we are in the high noon of Czarina Josie Rourke. What is it, this phantom Kingdom that they bear testament to? Mighty Things of the imagination raised up and enjoyed in a shared privilege;

Yvonne Gilan

Opposite: Bob Hoskins in England-England, 1977.

Sawdust Caesar, written by Andy Smith, was a pantomime whose central character was a combination of Aladdin and Hitler – or were there two characters played by the versatile Mary Sheen? I do remember, however, that I played a Chinese princess and sang a song called ‘Willow Pattern Blues’ rather well. After an East End success we were asked to put it on at the Bush – a West End transfer! Backstage was constrained, to say the least, and our cast was big. I’m sure many contributors will mention the lack of dressing rooms, entrances and a loo. There were loos in the pub downstairs, of course, but this meant going from backstage, down steep stone steps to an outside door, whizzing in costume round the corner and rushing into the pub where, certainly for the Ladies, we queued. Not what we were used to at the synagogue, we got a small bucket and sat it at the top of the stairs. Let me set the scene as I remember it. We had just played the Saturday matinee, during which the bucket was used by two of the men. I remember it vividly: we turned our backs, as did they. Between the matinée and the evening performance someone (I mention no names) knocked the bucket over, and pee poured down the long flight of stone steps. Mother of two, I immediately saw germs. The evening performance was half an hour away, so before anyone did anything remotely antiseptic and helpful, I rushed across the stage, out of the building and into the nearest shop that sold bleach (KILLS ALL KNOWN GERMS). Scene two sees me pouring an entire bottle of bleach over the pee on the stairs. The fumes rose up and practically suffocated us. Eyes were streaming and no one could breathe. Not a germ remained but our vocal chords were in tatters. We only recovered when stage-management had poured a tidal wave of water down the stairs and out into the street. That evening, we gave a rather hoarse performance and I cut my song.

36

Section 1: Salad Days


Nicholas Newton

Nicholas Newton

37


Section 1: Salad Days Caroline Holdaway and Karl Johnson in More Light, 1987.

a succession of excellent and provocative plays. Whether or not the piece presented was a punter’s delight, the spirit of place always seemed to exude a whiff of punk defiance to (admittedly, phantom) beadles or lictors outside, policing the bikini-sized grass sward of Shepherd’s Bush Green. As for what it was like really, I’m not even sure I should try too hard to empty the larder yet, and the 60th anniversary is going to be along before you can say Jack Robinson. Fragments of Lucinda Coxon’s sharply drawn work with a watery set stay with me, as do Tony Bicat’s cool, precisely planned maps of the human condition. Some admired plays that I saw there I have forgotten entirely. Mike Bradwell’s raucous follow-up production of the Cloggies is there double-parked halfway down Memory Lane whether I want it to be or not. For my own contribution, the Bush agreeing to do More Light, which had been commissioned, then passed up by the RSC, was certainly a wonderful high point. Jenny Topper, who produced it, still has parts of the set, designed by the great Robin Don, in her dining room. At the time, I was so overcome by the play being staged at all that I couldn’t watch it after the opening. I had to listen to it on the green room intercom, a ghost at the feast. If you were in the audience you could always see in the old Bush who had nodded off, and sometimes hear them. The critic, the late Sheridan Morley famously slept upright where he sat, somehow inviolable, whether at the Bush or elsewhere, his chin on his sternum. Earlier, in the high and far of times of the 70s, Bob Hoskins was Reggie Kray in England-England, a musical about the Kray twins. Kevin Coyne wrote the songs. One of the very few regrets I have is that I didn’t know at the time of writing the book that Reg danced both ends of the ballroom. It would have helped the plotting of the musical no end. At production week we found we had the looming David Bailey double photo of the Kray twins on the cover of Time Out. When we opened the musical, we unsurprisingly got a ritual kicking from the gentlemen of the press for ‘glamourizing violence’, amongst other crimes. Actually I suspect the chief offence was moving the production from the Bush with its faithful audience to the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre on a traffic island in Holborn, the theatrical equivalent of a black hole full of hostile Daleks. Just like Napoleon was exiled to Elba, Reg and Ron had been banished to a maximum-security prison on the Isle of

38

Section 1: Salad Days


Snoo Wilson

Wight. But they were obviously following the action from exile and we got a telegram from there for the opening night, which was certainly a lot chummier than the broadsheet reviews when they arrived. The Kray’s kid brother Charlie even came to the first night. He shook my hand. I noticed Charlie was wearing a gold signet ring on it the size of a knuckle duster. By dint of promising the impossible, and occasionally producing it, for years successive managements have kept the Bush’s bubble of reputation afloat, defying both critics and the looming cannon’s mouth of threatened cuts. Talkative loonies I remember seem to have been a recurring audience feature, and will probably not be one that goes away with the new location. As the theatre moves I am confident it can continue to punch above its weight and audience size. It’s not too far down the road, so the numinousness surely won’t evaporate. In the end it’s down to the talent, individually and collectively. I’ll just give one other example. We had the enormous good fortune to have John Byrne design the set for The Beast in the mid-80s. John is also a formidable writer as well as painter. He designed the poster and stayed up all night painting trompe l’oeil marble stonework. For … buttons, basically. How do you attract or continue to attract folk like that? He’s two-thirds genius and I never even thanked him properly or acknowledged it at the time. Is it too late now, John?

Snoo Wilson

39

John Byrne’s set for The Number of the Beast, 1982.


Dusty Hughes

Joint Artistic Director 1976–9

Section 1: Salad Days

T

he Bush Hotel, as it was grandly called in the late 1970s, was run by a benign but massively intimidating Irishman called Tommy Conway. The smart crowd who invaded London after Cheltenham Festival Week would call him a ‘culchie’, but though Tommy may have been a hick to wealthy Dubliners and a mere tenant, he was nobody’s fool. Literally about five foot six square and a champion boxer, he lived in the flat above the theatre with his family. There was his younger brother P.J., also an ex-fighter, whippet thin and a bit of a raver, his wife Mary, who was beautiful and had a lot of class, and Mary’s mother, known to all as Grandma. We had our own entrance to the Theatre off the street in the Goldhawk Road but mostly we wandered in and out through the pub. In the earlier days the stacks of ten pound notes Mary religiously totted up after closing (mostly from the staff of BBC Series and Serials, who drank just as religiously) shamed our meagre takings upstairs. On the first day of every fit-up, Tommy would arrive beaming with bottles of cheap Nicolas Rouge, which we didn’t much fancy, particularly when we had to get through 48 hours of hard labour without sleep. Besides, who would drink anything that sounded like an out-of-work actor? Nevertheless it was Tommy’s thank you for all the trade he hoped we would bring him (and eventually did), and I soon realized it was a genuine act of friendship. We all rubbed along fine; affability warmed into a kind of bemused affection and curiosity on both sides. In the years I was there, I can’t remember a single moment of conflict or aggression. In contrast to the endless themed transformations and fly-by-wire managers that slowly erased the pub’s identity, Tommy was a real publican and a real gentleman too. He was a gentle, roly-poly, self-contained presence, but anyone fighting would be collared so swiftly and ejected with such controlled menace it was almost performance art. He could really hurt people if he had to. He was liked by the local police. It was like ‘Life On Mars’ then. It wasn’t the lower rankings who slipped in there for an after-hours whisky. In fact the only time Tommy got angry was when someone from the Theatre called Shepherd’s Bush police station when a fight broke out and Tommy wasn’t there. Never Call The Police was the motto from then on. They trusted Tommy to run his shop, no interference on either side and of course it was Tommy’s pride that he did the chucking out. None better. Tommy’s brother P.J. used occasionally to come in late and a bit lively, which Mary and Grandma didn’t like too much, so they would lock him out. P.J. used to get up over the flat roof where we stored sets, and when we had an all night fit-up we would let him in through the theatre. Once we recreated an Irish pub based very much on the bar below for Snoo Wilson’s A Greenish Man. P.J. got in one night at 4am at least four sheets to the wind when the set was nearly

40

Section 1: Salad Days


Dusty Hughes backstage at the Bush, 1977.

Dusty Hughes

complete and we were taking a coffee break next door. I found him standing in the theatre staring at the set and gabbling incoherently. He had lost his bearings – somebody had moved the pub upstairs while he was out. There was a weekday Bush and a weekend Bush. Sunday lunchtimes the back bar was a strip joint and the Irish crowd all piled in there after church. I caught sight of a reporter from the Evening Standard sliding in there one day, just a week after he had written a prurient piece about simulated onstage sex at the National. Monday to Friday it was BBC execs in the plush bar with its beautiful Victorian glass and Uxbridge Roaders in the grotty end. No music, no fruit machines. There was an ‘insiders’ end even to the posh bar. Mary would come down every night between seven and eight dressed up like Princess Margaret and look after the Dublin businessmen and the well-heeled horse-racing lot with their trilbies and orchidaceous buttonholes. The BBC crowd would be in lunchtimes and evenings talking about ‘Dennis’s latest’ and generally being patronising. ‘I don’t go to the theatre myself. Anything good up there?’ (How times have changed. Now the middle classes don’t admit to watching TV.) Nevertheless whenever we discovered obvious stars like Alan Rickman or Victoria Wood, the Series and Serials men (it was mostly men then) would slip in and soon have them signed up. After appearing in my Commitments, Alan Rickman was swiftly on TV as Trollope’s loathsome Obadiah Slope. I was cornered by a reporter in the bar one night, after a show he hadn’t seen. ‘Can you introduce me to our friend over there? I’m thinking of running a piece – The Most Hated Man in Britain.’

Dusty Hughes

41


Section 1: Salad Days

Robin Soans When we did A Bed of Roses in 1978, once we were backstage there was no way back to the dressing room, or, indeed the lavatory. If we needed a pee during the performance it was either a ladder onto the roof and down the drainpipe, or down the backstairs and across the road to the ‘cottage’ on the corner of Shepherd’s Bush Green. I found during the dress rehearsal that I was busting for a piss and opted for the ‘cottage’. The only thing was I playing a vicar and at the time was dressed in full surplice, cassock and dog collar. I entered the brick toilet where forty men in tight jeans were fiddling with or eyeing each others’ willies. On the appearance of a man of the cloth in their midst, there was a mass zipping up of zips and within five seconds I had the entire bank of urinals to myself.

As the 70s moved into the 80s, the Theatre rarely had an empty seat. In fact we shoehorned them in so tightly that on the press night of a show I directed I stepped straight onto a woman’s hand as I was rushing to get out at the interval. (‘You bastard!’ she screamed as the masked ranks of the London critics turned to stare accusingly at me.) So things had changed. We started taking shows on tour. Tommy and P.J. bought a racehorse and Mary’s fur coats got grander. We didn’t watch her counting the cash any more because we were too busy counting our own and making sure it added up for the Arts Council and was enough to pay Equity wages. Mysteriously the brewers Ind Coope seemed disappointed with the bar takings. ‘You’re packing them in but your audiences don’t drink much, do they?’ one area manager informed us at one of our regular meetings. This didn’t quite square with what we knew and could see with our own eyes. The audiences came early, drank during the show, and mixed with the actors afterwards. Curiouser and curiouser.

42

Section 1: Salad Days


Nicholas Newton

I left running the Bush but remained on the Board and started to write full time. One day the Conways were out of there faster than Tommy could marmalize a drunk, and not of their own free will. They’d saved enough money to buy a small pub in Paddington. The farewells were genuine and warm but it was the end of an era and every Bush director who has had to share the building with O’Neill’s and Walkabout will confirm it. So it really is time to move, and bon voyage!

Dusty Hughes

43

Alan Rickman and George Irving in Commitments, 1980.


Julie Walters Section 1: Salad Days

I

t is 32 years since I worked at the Bush Theatre, so my memories are somewhat sporadic. The show was to be called In at the Death, and some might say that the audience were exactly that on some nights. It was a series of playlets (we were instructed not to call them sketches) written by such luminaries as Snoo Wilson, Ken Campbell, Nigel Baldwin, Ron Hutchinson, Nigel Williams, Dusty Hughes (the latter also being our director) and a young woman I’d never heard of before, called Victoria Wood. In the cast were Alison Fiske, Godfrey Jackman, Phil Jackson, Clive Merrison, Victoria and myself. I think it was summertime because I have a very vivid recollection of spending lunchtimes during the rehearsal period hanging out of the window above the entrance to the theatre with my new pal Victoria (we had bonded instantly) and watching the world pass by beneath us in the street below. On one of these occasions we spotted Harold Pinter standing at the bus stop. On a bubble of excitement I screeched down, ‘Hey Harold, hello! Hello there! … You write plays don’t you?’ He looked up blankly, ‘Pardon? … What?’ ‘You’re a writer, we could do with one of those up here!’ after which he promptly turned his back. My cheeks are burning as I remember it. Then a week or so into the run we thought it a hoot to write ‘H. Pinter, 2 seats’ on the booking list and laughed our heads off backstage as we watched a very nervous cast crank their performances up a notch or two to impress the eminent playwright, who never, of course, turned up. And talking of backstage, never before or since has there been a backstage like backstage at the Bush. It was simply a small landing, directly behind the stage, I guess about six foot square, and from it a flight of stone steps, also doubling as the fire escape, lead down to a pair of doors that opened out onto the street. Once the audience were

44


45

Julie Walters

in, this small and precarious space also became the dressing room for the entire cast. There were no toilet facilities and so we took to rushing down the fire escape, out into the street and back in to use the pub toilets. For an interval wee, this had to be done sharpish if you didn’t want to be caught queuing with the punters. At an early preview, sitting breathless on the lav after a lightning interval dash, Victoria and I heard a rather upper-middle-class voice intone, ‘Oh dear! Could do better. Shall we bother with the second half?” After that, it was perfecting our aim into pint glasses and frequent cries of, “Don’t drink that!!’ as thirsty actors reached for what they thought was a pint of lager in the backstage gloom. The little space became even more hazardous once the show had started, because it was then pitch black apart from a sharp sliver of light that bled through a crack in the scenery. On one particular night we were all on stage – apart, that is, from Victoria, who was to make her appearance in the last few minutes leading up to the interval. Just prior to her entrance, we heard an enormous crash and what sounded like the soft, repeated thud of flesh on stone. When we finally exited, we found Victoria, who of course never managed to get on stage, sprawled halfway down the staircase and covered with blood. She had slipped in the darkness whilst hovering over a pint glass and cut her hand and in doing so had knocked over a number of other glasses, splattering their contents all over the costumes, and needless to say they didn’t all contain drinks. What the second half audience must have thought of the badly stained costumes one can only guess at, and as for the smell as they dried under the heat of the stage lights in the wonderful intimacy of the Bush auditorium … Early Odorama? Oh Mr Pinter … how you missed out!

Left to right: Philip Jackson, Victoria Wood, Alison Fiske, Julie Walters and Godfrey Jackman. In at the Death, 1978.


'Close-up' Magic: 40 Years at the Bush Theatre