All I have is a voice
     To undo the folded lie,
     The romantic lie in the brain
     Of the sensual man-in-the-street
     And the lie of Authority
     Whose buildings grope the sky:
     There is no such thing as the State
     And no one exists alone;
     Hunger allows no choice
     To the citizen or the police;
     We must love one another or die.
                                             (W. H. Auden)
I can’t imagine how Lorna Want rehearsed herself into the all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting Dreamboats and Petticoats in the last fortnight of The Fantasticks. It is the 1960s nostalgia show to end all and I found it alluring and touching, not only in its boundless lyric drive but in the many touches of prosaic, everyday detail. I recognized many of the numbers, though I was hardly a fan of Top of the Pops at the time, being a cultural snob, a father by 1965 and preoccupied with holding onto the rungs of the ladder at Olivier’s National Theatre. I did buy three Beatles LPs, but that was on the strength of there being such respectable features as violin and trumpet solos in ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
This show is all about the dreams of very ordinary people expressed through an extraordinary flowering of musical energy. It does not seem like a showbiz con that the rock groups, lady brass players and dancers next to a youth club ping-pong table have a hard-edged West End professionalism to their period charm and exuberance. There is nothing original in the interwoven love stories, yet it never seems like the cynical ticking of effective boxes. The performers exude sincerity, energy, belief and commitment, and their delight is all, carrying with it an elemental conviction.
At the end, as the audience rose to dance, I looked across the stalls of the Playhouse and there was a life-size Grecian maiden in gilded plaster adorning a stage box, gazing at the stage with a beatific smile; it was as if she had been waiting for this moment since the days when audiences were mere gloomy blurred figures in the paintings of Sickert. I decided I had to paint that scene and herewith is this weekend’s work in progress:

The hero of Dreamboats and Petticoats is a shy schoolboy dealing with O-Levels and acne (we have to imagine the latter! In fact he is fresh-faced as well as very good looking). He has an Estuary accent, complete with Fs for Ths, but when he bursts into song he enters another language entirely, another state of being in fact – confident, passionate (even in his laments about being unloved), from the heart and, of course, American. The audience almost takes the transformation of his personality for granted – after all, how else would you sing ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ or ‘Dream Baby Dream’?

The programme notes remind us of the ecstatic smashing of suburban cinema seats when ‘Rock Around the Clock’ went on release and that, with the new liberty and comparative affluence, juvenile crime doubled in a decade. But ‘Dreamboats’ is in the title, and in the show no one so much as lights a cigarette or has a glass of beer. The oldies in the audience purred audibly – I did – with nostalgia, hearing the characters’ aspirations to have an American milkshake (‘They’re 1/6’) or a Knickerbocker Glory at the local Wimpy Bar. (Emblematic of this period of cultural transition was the fact that the first Wimpy Bar in the UK opened in 1954 at the oldest Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street.) Were our Happy Hours so innocent?

People still express surprise that I ever had a working-class Bradford accent, but I simply acquired another voice to ‘sing’ with, and since it was a speaking voice, I spoke with it in life as well as on the stage. The great teenage liberation of the 50s and 60s was all about utterance as working-class boys and girls were released into song and the romance of the classless American idiom and, on a less noticeable scale, countless provincial working-class acting students learnt the West End Drawl and the heroic, noble way of handling verse – their passport into ‘The Profession’, insecurity and unemployment.

Dreamboats and Petticoats was bookended by two return visits to Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre and its current festival exploring Afghan culture and history. The Tricycle Cinema is a comfortable place to spend a civilized evening. The Art Deco Gaumont State Cinema down the road, which I remember as a vast auditorium, has finally morphed from a Mecca bingo hall into a Ruach Christian Ministries Centre, its grandiose carpeted foyers busy with happy, well-dressed people who seem to be at home in their own community centre.

Spirited, charming children reduced to shadows. The film I saw there on Monday night was a fly-on-the-wall study of a poor family living on the outskirts of Kabul, in wasteland resembling a bomb site. Even the mother, an almost toothless single parent, old before her time, admitted taking heroin herself and offering it to her boy to save him from being bored because ‘there was nothing in the house’. The problem of child addiction is widespread. Follow-up captions told us that the three youngsters, two boys and a girl, all around ten years of age when the film was made and in and out of rehab programmes, were now, two years later, back on the drug.

Q&A afterwards with the Afghan director of the film, a young and cheerful English head of an NGO, and two other Afghans. It emerged that there were also some Afghans in the audience. One’s picture became more confused as the questions and statements from the audience went on, one man asserting that the biggest market for drugs in the country was the American military. I talked to some Afghans afterwards and one told me that the Taliban are blamed for the poppy growing now, but that when they were firmly in power there was no problem with drugs.

How did we ever think we could help? The evening ended uncomfortably and inconclusively.

The ‘stars’ of the film had never been able, we realized, to go back to their Winnebagos, have their make-up and costumes removed, enjoy a good meal and wait for the next juicy role. No, they are still acting out their harsh reality – even now as we consider these words, even now as we contemplate the irony that the only way the children would agree to being filmed was in exchange for the promise that the film would never be shown in Afghanistan. It would, they said, bring shame on them!
On Friday night I caught Part 3 of The Great Game: Afghanistan. As I expected, the previous evening the Army had proved a good comedy house (like the bishops at Hadrian VII). I wonder whether my great nephew, who is at Sandhurst, was there; many of the officer cadets were. General Sir David Richards wants to rewrite one of his speeches (a verbatim quote). Much of the material in the twelve-play anthology has been rewritten to bring it up to date, since it was first performed some months ago. The officer cadets were astonished at how much they learnt about Afghanistan. TiE (Theatre in Education) comes to Sandhurst! Not before time.

The Q&A that night was a letdown: two banners advertising the Guardian were brought on stage and the paper’s ‘Security Editor’, along with Nicolas Kent, Artistic Director of the Tricycle and begetter of the whole project, sat and held forth. They were but pale figures after the vivid realizations we had witnessed; truth is not always stranger than fiction. In any case, how, sitting in a theatre in the Kilburn High Road, could we tell the difference. Who held the truth about Afghanistan, was it expressed by these real, or the imagined real people of the play? Certainly I utterly believed that Jemma Redgrave was a passionate NGO worker, and was there, determined to force a deal over some commandeered land to save 100 farmers from starving, accepting the betrothal of two preteen girls as part of the bargain: ‘Graham, listen! You know perfectly well that there’s no such thing as right and wrong in this business, there’s only culture. It’s not our job to impose our values. You’ve put your mother in an old people’s home. Have you ever seen anyone homeless in Afghanistan, any old people abandoned? You judge them, let them judge you.’

 Jemma Redgrave, Tom McKay and Nabil Elouahabi in On the Side of the Angels by Richard Bean. Photo by John Haynes

I began my Sunday wakening to a morning service on Radio 4 from Eton College Chapel. We were treated to some history of the beautiful chapel, the construction of which was halted when the College’s founder Henry VI was deposed by Edward IV. Eton is presently host to a large number of choristers, forming a summer school, and they began with a Spanish motet sung so – ravishingly is probably not the word, and what the text of the motet was I forget and, of course, didn’t follow in Spanish at the time – but ‘heavenly’ style wins over content in such music. The sound was sacred and made one believe in … what? Just now I am remembering Laurence Olivier saying a line in, of all plays, Strindberg’s Dance of Death, a searing portrait of marital Hell. At one point, during a duologue with a friend, Olivier had to say words to the effect that he sometimes had thoughts of ‘something better’.

Olivier was a past master at this kind of moment, expressing from a great well of weary, defeated anger and grief, a yearning, a faint hope, the more powerful because it was so understated. This morning the ‘something better’ was associated with Eton’s Chapel, which I found I could not remember, and a host of nebulous sensations that there might be a divine being who inspired in humans such music and who might be listening with us now.

But the vision faded with the prayers. Why should we ask God to send us a good harvest? Did he not send the rains which, as this morning’s news told us, have devastated the lives of countless people in Pakistan? I do not want to offend: it has been a week of extremes in which I have been privileged to return from my cultural adventures to sleep safe and well fed, a sort of liberal dilettante in a desperate world. What to do?!

Tired, I must go to bed, but I did promise myself to make a better job of those dark figures in the foreground of my pastel drawing first; it seems like a retreat into the cosy morality of the Sunday-school hymn I recall, ‘Jesus Bids Us Shine’. What was it? ‘You in your small corner, / And I in mine.’ Even dark figures can be helped, I trust, to shine.  

Emboldened by your comments last week, I have posted quite a long blog this week and here append the promised image I chanced upon on my way home from the Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross – the curious amalgam of Disney and Picasso on high:

4 thoughts on “FINDING A VOICE”
  • Edward Petherbridge

    Thank you for your messages last week.

    They spur me; put me on my mettle
    Whether blogging or boiling the kettle
    I remember each hour
    Of our gigabyte power
    Our life is a delicate petal.


  • Christine

    I think you are well on your way to a second career as an illustrated theater critic! Perhaps the better description would be "reporter" since you do such a good job of conveying the experience of being there without giving the sense that you are trying to pick the production apart. As parent with too many work commitments, your posts are as close as I am getting regular theatrical experiences. Thanks for sharing! (Some kinds of endeavors justify the expansion of the carbon footprint.)

  • oldisgood

    I deleted the original comment solely because I made a glaring typo.
    What I was trying to say was "hear hear" to your responses,Christine and Thankyou, Mr Petherbridge for this week's food-for-thought with its eclectic mix of the literary and visual.
    It graphically illustrates the paradoxes surrounding us and presents another fascinating perspective.
    I don't know on earth do you find the time and energy to do it all but thank goodness you do!
    Finally,have a Happy Birthday.

  • Zander Nyrond

    In the end, trite as it sounds, we are where we are and we do what we can to make the world better, or at least not to make it any worse.

    My mother used to sing "Jesus Bids Us Shine" to me when I was small, and while I may not be quite as certain nowadays of who is doing the bidding, I still believe whatever feeble glimmer I may be able to muster does some good, even if it never reaches as far as the truly troubled places of the world.

    The other one she used to do I have half forgotten, but the second half remains:

    To each is given a box of tools,
    An hourglass and a book of rules,
    And each must build, ere his life be flown,
    A stumbling block, or a stepping stone.

    Thank you once again for this.

    Jonathan Waite

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