The Old Country / Gaudeamus / Burn / Period Of Adjustment /
Rockaby / Ohio Impromptu / Sophie Tucker's One Night Stand

Various venues

March, 2006

Another shortie this issue, since as I write I am in Scarborough at the National Student Drama Festival; full report to follow next issue (to compensate for what will no doubt be another truncated Prompt Corner).  As testimony to the loyalty and dedication this event inspires, let me note that this afternoon (on my emergence from the fourth version of The Government Inspector I’ve seen in the past twelve months), I saw that Timothy West had travelled half the length of England to watch plays and take workshops on his day off from The Old Country in the West End.

There’s little to say about this production that has not already been said in its reviews.  The notion of using espionage as a metaphor for homosexuality, and the examination of how each fits within the fabric of the nation in general and the Establishment in particular, is an interesting one which is explored more fully in Alan Bennett’s subsequent plays now known as the Single Spies diptych.  Bennett’s view of what is, after all, his own sexuality continues to be deeply ambivalent: even in The History Boys, he on the one hand upholds it to an extent and in a manifestation that would normally be condemned as heretical in this age of quote-paedophile-unquote witch-hunting, yet on the other allows none of his gay characters to end happily. An armchair psychologist might make much of such an apparent conflict.

Word for word

Open sexuality is not just encouraged but mandatory in Peter Morris’s Gaudeamus, in which an American liberal arts college amends its statutes to prohibit any of its members refusing another member’s solicitation of sex. When I wrote about Peter’s play Guardians in issue 20 of last year, on the strength of my viewing of it in Edinburgh but on the occasion of its London transfer, he chid me that there had in fact been substantial changes in the version that travelled south and which I hadn’t re-seen.  However, I’m afraid that with Gaudeamus I can repeat my earlier opinion virtually word for word: “Although often compelling in itself, [it] is fundamentally no different from any Morris play I have seen.  He advances his social/ideological agenda not under its own colours but by denigrating other modes of thought around it, and he simply shows no interest in people as people.  His characters almost invariably turn out just to be more articulate, slightly more complex versions of standard stereotypes [...] whom he uses as tools of his dramatic dialectic rather than letting them appear or interact in a natural human light.”  Once again, we have a series of intercut monologues rather than a drama of onstage interaction; once again, one character who’s a little too self-satisfied with their intellect, breadth of allusion and predilection for punning (which is, I think, a trait these characters have in common with their author), and once again an over-eagerness to épater les bourgeois that doesn’t quite come off.  The radical difference is that this time, there’s also an oddly affirmative, almost sentimental outcome which suggests to the cynic in me that Gaudeamus may be the play to take Peter to a new level of prominence in his native United States.


One can’t accuse the trio of plays about teenagerdom at the Cottesloe of being sentimental, although as some reviewers have noted Deborah Gearing’s Burn is overwritten and self-conscious in a way that the other two pieces are not; personally, I wouldn’t have given it space beside them (although, since last year was one of the few when I managed to miss the National’s Connections mini-festival, I can’t suggest another play to put in its place).  I’m similarly with the thumbs-down brigade on Tennessee Williams’ Period Of Adjustment at the Almeida.  Bless him and save him, but Williams simply could not write comedy of the kind this was intended to be.  And I should defer to Rhoda Koenig’s American ear for American accents, but I cannot for the life of me understand her praise for Lisa Dillon’s strangulated efforts which turn even “wedding” into a four-syllable “weyadeeyin”, making her nuptials sound more like a band of Islamic resistance fighters.

To the first double-bill in the Beckett Centenary Festival at the Barbican: as has been noted elsewhere, the plays in question allow little latitude of interpretation, yet there is a particular astringent perfection in Sian Phillips’ performance – both physically and on tape – in Rockaby, and in Harry Towb’s washed-out narration in Ohio Impromptu.


All Beckett’s plays are in one form or another about endings or non-endings, continuations of privation or of nothingness.  In its way, so is Sophie Tucker’s One Night Stand, transferred to the King’s Head after a run at the New End late last year.  It’s clear from the opening lines – “Have you seen the paper? It says I’m dead” – that the evening will incline far more towards divertissement than drama.  Sue Kelvin gets through two dozen numbers in under 90 minutes of playing time, linked together by a canter through Tucker’s life: birth in Russia in 1884, upbringing in the family restaurant in Connecticut, early vaudeville career in blackface as a “coon shouter” before she established her own personality as a sassy Yiddishe woman of generous build and appetites to match.  There’s little insight on offer: the son (from the first of three brief marriages) whom she all but abandoned in his infancy is periodically deployed to generate a few token minor-key moments in the first act, but after the interval he vanishes save for a couple of mentions as a figure of fun.  It’s all, as so many of these affairs are, thoroughly agreeable but scarcely more; I knew little about Tucker when I went into the theatre and I came out, like the judge in the old joke, better informed but none the wiser. And now, if you’ll forgive me, I must dash off to see a (mercifully) one-hour-long adaptation of Moby-Dick.  Forget Ishmael; call me a taxi.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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