Rock ’n’ Roll / obituary for Val Widdowson
Various venues

June, 2006

My esteemed colleague and predecessor Ian Herbert kept trying to make me understand that this column is a place in which I should stir things up a bit.  I sometimes feel a little disappointed that my opinion of plays so often chime with the critical consensus.  I know that I can also be quite gauche when taking issue with that consensus, often beginning along the lines of “I am amazed that…”.

But, as it happens, I am amazed that there has been so little critical dissent on the subject of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’N’ Roll.  Alastair Macaulay stands a couple of steps back from the adulation, but that’s as far as it goes.  I have, as it happens, met a number of people in the past couple of weeks who are as mystified as me that no-one has dared to say “boo” to this play… and, as it happens, they’re all practically involved in theatre at very high levels.  That’s not an appeal to authority, but it makes you think, or perhaps ought to.

Stoppard is obviously not in a the same league as, say, Howard Barker for unremitting density, but he does still convey a slight feeling that he puts more into his plays than the average punter can comfortably digest.  On this occasion, though, I think he put in more than he could digest.


Let me approach this in an unorthodox way: through the music.  Yes, as various reviewers note, the actual rock ’n’ roll is largely confined to scene changes, whilst details of the track are projected in white onto the black curtain (and it seems that things are once again so strained in the former-Pink Floyd camp that Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters won’t even be seen together on the same caption).  Nevertheless, the music provides the title of the play, its superstructure, its core symbol and a central role in the lives of several of its characters, so I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in analysing what Stoppard actually does with the music.

To begin with what might seem a point of staggering pedantry: would anyone in 1971 have referred to Syd Barrett’s "Golden Hair" as being “track 8” on The Madcap Laughs?  I don’t think so: they’d have called it the second track on side 2, or words to that effect.  Stoppard has written a Seventies teenager who speaks the language not of vinyl LPs but of CDs.  And this, I think, is an emblem of the play’s principal weakness: that it pretends to capture an era but in fact all matters are filtered quite strongly through modern sensibilities.  The sensibilities in question are those of an age in which communism is commonly held to have definitively “lost”, in which (as so often throughout history) an acquiescence in the dominant ideology is interpreted self-congratulatorily as being a noble absence of ideology, a standing above that whole arena.  But they are also the sensibilities of Tom Stoppard, the individual: an individual who has written a play which repeatedly pays homage to Syd Barrett as a rock and counterculture icon but whose choice of between-scenes music (written into the script) repeatedly veers instead towards the bloated self-obsession of later, Roger Waters-era Floyd.  (Surely one of the engines that drove Waters’ bitterness was that his problems were generally seen as somehow being less heroic than Syd’s.)


Stoppard hasn’t actually done his research, either.  Understandably: it doesn’t occur to many of us that we need particularly to research rock; we’ve grown up with it.  But when we intend to make so much of something, we really ought to take steps to ensure that we know what we’re handling.  At one point in the first act, Stoppard’s protagonist Jan is about to put a record on, and asks his friend Ferdinand whether it should be The Doors or The Fugs, before making the choice himself in favour of The Doors.  This may be a deliberate choice on Stoppard’s part to underline that Jan’s interest in rock was for the music rather than any especial countercultural agenda, but I fear it may also simply be an automatic assumption that there isn’t much to choose between them.  In fact, The Fugs soon transcended their early folk-rock sound for something much closer to the Frank Zappa-influenced freak-out music practised by Jan’s beloved Plastic People Of The Universe: Jan’s natural inclination would be to listen to The Fugs rather than the Byronic posturing of The Doors.  Just as, when considering moving to Frankfurt in 1971, Jan would not be stereotypically disparaging of the concept of German rock: he would be aware that the burgeoning “cosmic music” scene (or “Krautrock”, as it’s now more generally known) already included the likes of Can, Faust, Cluster, Popol Vuh… and those are just the major bands in that region of Germany; I’m refraining from mentioning many more that were based in or sprang from Berlin.  Again, this was music of the kind that a Plastics fan would instinctively understand.

Yes, you’re quite right: none of this has anything to do with what goes on in the play.  But it should.  Should, not from a moral “my taste is right” standpoint, but because these are not mere details but are of relevance to Stoppard’s treatment of his material.


And there’s the big one, of course.  Act One ends in 1977; Act Two begins a decade later.  So what happened to punk and its offshoots?  To the nihilism and reaction against all consensus?  To the horrors of New Romanticism, the innovation of early electro and the beginnings of indie and “college rock”?  What we get are a few seconds of U2’s "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For", which offers a brief, rather smug chuckle if it stands as a comment on the intervening years.  But what I was looking for was some kind of acknowledgement of the political events of that period as well; the play is, after all, about the left in Britain as well as the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.  But no, Brian Cox’s character Max is as defiantly stuck in his Marxist rut as ever; he’s just incorporated a few mentions of Thatcher into his outpourings.  In fact, though – and I never believed that I would be granting the mad old bat this much; I’m holding my nose as I type – there is a case to be made for the view that she and Reagan laid the foundations for the sea-change of 1989.  I’m not saying that view is right, but surely in a play like this it ought at least to be acknowledged, to be engaged with in order to be refuted.  But no, it’s as absent from the picture as the Pistols, Joy Division, The Smiths et al. from the soundtrack.  Neither those politics nor those musics fit the thesis of the play, which is one rooted in a conservative paternalism (its happy ending is symbolised by the Stones… in 1990, for heaven’s sake!) rather than radicalism of any stripe.

And so I think that Stoppard’s selective, partial and downright sloppy use of music ought to make one at least question whether there isn’t a similar flaw in the play’s ideology.  I think there is, but the problem with its reviews is that the point isn’t even questioned.  The review of the play I’d really like to read has, to the best of my knowledge, yet to be written: it is by Charles Shaar Murray, Britain’s greatest living rock journalist.


Well, at least I managed to avoid going back to harp once more on the Cambridge strain, for all that the English scenes of Rock ’N’ Roll are set there.  But I turn thitherwards now, for a blatantly personal remembrance.  My life in and around theatre has had three principal catalysts: my grammar-school teacher Robin Glendinning, who first awakened the dramatic fervour in me; Robert Hewison, Georgina Brown, Sarah Hemming and Lyn Gardner, who between them gave me all the initial breaks that built up to the beginnings of a reviewing career, long before I recognised as much myself; and between them, Val Widdowson.  You’ve almost certainly never heard of him.  He was usually jobless, sometimes homeless, yet an inspiration to several generations of student actors and directors in Cambridge.

He grew up in the city, attending Cambridge County School for Boys, and soon became involved in acting both with the likes of Richard Spaul’s Cambridge Experimental Theatre company and the numerous student dramatic societies, pre-eminent among them the University’s Amateur Dramatic Club.  By the early 1980s he could regularly be seen in the ADC Theatre’s bar, and irregularly on stages around the city.

Val had an inclination towards self-destruction.  Partly this took the form of alcohol: as his character notes in James Saunders’ play Triangle, which became Val’s signature piece, “I have achieved in the trade a certain notoriety – or let’s say fame, I don’t want to brag – as a person not unfond of his bottle.  Or anyone else’s.”  But he also showed a compulsion to sabotage his reputation whenever it showed signs of becoming too great for him to bear: every few years, he would disappear shortly before he was due to open in a major role.  Among those student directors who suddenly found a Widdowson-sized gap in their cast was Sam Mendes in that production of The Changeling I mentioned a few weeks ago on this page.


Yet when he acted or directed, Val was consummate.  Dominic Dromgoole, now artistic director of Shakeapeare’s Globe and a student in the early 1980s, recalls, “He once spent about five minutes peeling an orange, alone on stage, in an intense drama about Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell.  It was one of the most fascinating stretches of acting I have ever witnessed.”  As a director, he elicited remarkable performances from his casts through a mixture of instinctive psychological work and sheer play.
He showed a fondness for the plays of James Saunders, directing A Scent Of Flowers, Bodies and several times performing Triangle, an all-but-solo piece in which a mentally disintegrating actor supposedly has 20 minutes of material to perform and a 40-minute slot to fill in front of an audience (in reality, every word is scripted).  The Actor also downs almost half a bottle of whisky in the course of the play.  Although Saunders never intended it, Val insisted on performing with real whisky; such copious ingestion never interfered with the power of his performance, except on the one occasion when he gave the play twice on the same day – the second-house performance (at which I played the subordinate character of the Prompter) lasted 85 minutes, and his tearful exit was followed by a distinct, unscripted, man-sized thud from offstage.
And although drink was a refuge for him, he was peerless company on the way.  Few who have ever heard it will forget his story of his old headmaster teaching Macbeth: the man’s teeth whistled on S’s, so when he got to “If th’assassination/Could trammel up the consequence, and catch/With his surcease, success…”, dogs would come running from miles around.

Extravagantly bearded

A spell in Bristol in the mid-1980s was followed by a return to Cambridge and several months of homelessness during which he slept on a succession of friends’ floors or on the street.  He worked for a while in an ancillary nursing job at Fulbourn mental hospital, then re-entered education with a view to working in dramatherapy, but found it difficult to allow himself to be formally taught skills that he had long since acquired experientially.  In the early 2000s, he performed a number of solo shows consisting of dramatised readings of his own and others’ work, usually with the ADC Bar as a formal venue.  He also worked at the theatre’s box office; the last time I saw him, nearly two years ago, he tested the authenticity of a ten-pound note proffered by a punter by holding up the portrait of Charles Darwin on the reverse of the note to compare it with his own balding and extravagantly bearded visage.  (He always wore a beard of Marxian proportions unless a role had required him to trim or shave it.)  The likeness was astounding; the note passed muster.

Val was nevertheless reclusive in his home life, and it is grimly unsurprising that, when authorities forced entry into his home for a gas inspection in April 2006, he was found to have been dead for some weeks.  He died from a gastro-intestinal haemorrhage due to gastric ulceration, according to the inquest held last week, the report of which was the first I heard of his passing.  He was eleven years and one day younger than Syd Barrett, and I shall miss him.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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