Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Murray Melvin, The Theatre Workshop and the Theatre Royal, Stratford

We traversed a great deal of ground during the course of this year’s Open House London weekend, from the starkly forbidding concrete canyon of Alexander Terrace in Camden to the cooler modernism and statesmanlike halls of the RIBA building in Fitzrovia; the ultra-modern foldaway one-room cupboard for living of the Lux Pod in Chelsea to the Victorian College of Psychic Studies in South Kensington, once presided over by Arthur Conan Doyle; the London Library in Picadilly, with its vertiginous floor to ceiling shelves interleaved with iron grille walkways, allowing you to see the book-lined precipice above and below to the medieval stone arch of St.John’s Gate, inserted into the narrow 18th century streets of Clerkenwell, and the twelfth century crypt of the Knights Hospitaller’s church over the road; and to the wide rectangular expanse of the Victoria Docks in Newham, which we circumnavigated in the community boat the River Princess, crewed by a disparate parcel of friendly and likeable rogues, from whose decks we could survey the surrounding Ballardian terrain, with its isolated apartment blocks and hangar-like arenas, airport runway abutting directly upon the dock basin and the looming white-walled ruin of the Millenium Mills and its attendant silos.

But the culmination of the weekend was a visit to the Theatre Royal, Straford. We had to fight our way through the milling hordes making their pilgrimage to or pouring out of the new Westfield shopping centre, corporate gateway into the Olympic park and village and genuine ‘retail destination’, positioned to funnel passengers pouring out of the termini of rail, docklands railway, underground and overground and bus route directly into its marbled naves and aisles. As one woman excitedly announced on her phone on the overground on the way back, the crowds were so huge that there was a ‘one in one out’ policy in operation, a form of martial law imposed by the security who are the law in such privately owned enclaves of the city. The theatre and its surrounding companions the Picture House and Stratford Circus performing arts venue can’t compete in terms of scale (or monumental advertising hoardings) to such a temple of consumerism, but it can offer an alternative place to congregate. Set back in the square named after the man who did so much to preserve the theatre in the face of rapacious developers, Gerry Raffles, it’s somewhere in which to find a certain distance from the frenzied busyness of transport cross-connections, the all-engulfing mall and the general ‘regeneration’ of the area.

The Theatre Royal is indelibly associated with Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles’ Theatre Workshop company, about which I’ve written in a previous post. We were there both to see the site of many productions which have now become the stuff of legend, and to hear a talk by one of the key members of the Workshop company, Murray Melvin. Melvin is now the Theatre archivist, a role which he assiduously carries out on an entirely voluntary basis. As he told us, this is his way of saying thank you to Littlewood for giving him such an invaluable education, the Workshop having been his university, and also akin to a family. Littlewood was not the sort to accept directly expressed gratitude. As Murray impishly pointed out, ‘if you thanked her, she’d sack you’. Murray’s hard work can be seen throughout the theatre in the many wonderful pictures of Workshop productions which adorn the walls. There’s Harry H Corbett in Richard II, Richard Harris building a wall onstage in the Lord Chamberlain vexing You Won’t Always Be On Top, Barbara Windsor in Sparrers Can’t Sing and Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be, and there’s Murray himself in A Taste of Honey, The Hostage and donning the pierrot costume for Oh What A Lovely War. Many of these photos are from the Spinner collection. As Murray points out in recorded on the occasion of an exhibition of photographs at the National Theatre of the Workshop productions, collected in a book which he edited, John Spinner was a local Walthamstow boy who shared in his father’s enthusiasm for amateur photography. He became entranced by the Workshop’s performances and began to record them, becoming a semi-official documenter (much about the Workshop was semi-official, with funds always low or non-existent) when Gerry Raffles agreed to pay for the costs of his material. Murray suggested to him that his collection could be taken into the archive, where it would be sorted, catalogued and properly exhibited, shortly before his death, and he has remained true to his word. It’s a good example of the way in which the Theatre Workshop engaged with the local community and encouraged the development of nascent enthusiasm and talent. The Workshop is also memorialised in the new area to the right of the entrance corridor, which has been christened the Avis foyer in affectionate tribute to Avis Bunnage, one of the Workshop family’s most long-standing and dedicated members. You can see the busty costume she wore in Oh What A Lovely War to send the boys off to the front with the promiscuous promise of her I’ll Make A Man of You recruitment song. There are also designs for dresses and costumes from this landmark play, and a picture of Avis as Marie Lloyd in the Marie Lloyd story, a performance which provided the enduring pleasures of the old music hall songs but also unveiled the tragedy of the life which lay behind the limelit mask of indefatigable good cheer and bawdy ribaldry.

The Marie Lloyd Story was a fairly late production in the Workshop’s history, staged in 1967, and seemed to be an attempt to reach back into the theatrical past of which the Theatre Royal was a part (perhaps inspired by the end of Gerry Raffles’ lengthy struggle to buy up the Freehold for the land in which it stood, thus seemingly insuring its future). Murray Melvin took us back to its origins in the late Victorian age. Theatrical troupes often performed at temporary sites or ‘fit-ups’, setting up wherever they felt they might attract a good crowd. One such band of wandering players was the company of Frederick Fredericks (son, wouldn’t you know, of Frederick Fredericks snr.). An actor in his company, Charles Dillon, decided to try and create a more permanent base for performance, thus presaging the Theatre Workshop’s decision some 70 years later to settle down after many year’s travelling around the country. Dillon’s application for a license met with strident opposition from the local clergy, in particular one Reverend RP Pelly, who felt that ‘a theatre would not tend to the moral devotion of the people of the neighbourhood’. He was also concerned for the corrupting effect that theatre (and presumably theatrical folk) might have on the inhabitants of the local Home for Respectable Gentlewomen. As Murray wryly observed, there is unfortunately no record of what the gentlewomen themselves felt about the prospect of this new venture. The theatre opened, in spite of the good reverend’s objections, on Wednesday 17th December, 1884, with a production of Lord Bulwer Lytton’s popular and well-known play Richelieu, or The Conspiracy. The building itself was converted from an old, barn-like wheelwright’s shop, its outer shell essentially retained in its original form, with the front wall intact to this day.

Dillon, whilst he was a seriously-minded and committed actor, proved to be a less than inspired manager when it came to the financial side of running a theatre. It soon passed into the hands of Frederick Frederick’s brother Albert (who happened to be married to Dillon’s sister), a successful coal merchant who had a far sharper sense of business acumen. It was to remain in the hands of the Fredericks family for the next 50 years, and as Mr Melvin pointed out, the double F above the proscenium arch remains as a testament to their central role in the creation and development of the theatre. Albert Fredericks put on a more populist programme than Dillon’s traditional theatrical fare, with plenty of full-blooded melodramas. He also had an eye for innovations and novelties, and staged several dioramas, moving image precursors to the cinema in which lengthy panoramas were unwound before the audience’s eyes, with an impression of life and movement created by lighting pinpointing particular areas from before or behind the semi-translucent screen. A particular masterstroke was the introduction of opera in the 1889-90 season. This proved a huge success with local audiences, which goes to show what a popular form of music Italian and light opera used to be. As a result of this success, he was able to make some improvements to the theatre, buying up some of the surrounding land, shops and houses. Murray stepped towards the middle of the stage (set up for a performance of A Clockwork Orange, with added seating to the rear) and spread his arms out to indicate where the back wall used to be, demonstrating how far the theatre had been extended, increasing the depth of the stage from 18 feet to 38 feet. The new bar to the side of the building (added after inevitable mumblings from the Temperance Society) was built on the site of the old Angel Lane fish shop, and a stretch of mosaic tiling can still be seen delineating a portion of its floor plan. After electricity was installed in 1902, along with a new box-office and panel mirror (now installed in the lobby), the theatre, now under the ownership of Albert Frederick’s niece Caroline, offered new delights such as local variety acts, and projections of bioscope pictures were inserted into the usual bill of popular plays.

The story of the theatre after the First World War is one of steady decline, however. Fires, local and national economic depression, closure during the Second World War, and failed attempts at variety and saucy revue shows all took their toll. There was still the occasional highlight. In 1950, the aptly named Tod Slaughter, a veteran Grand Guignol ham who invariably played bloodthirsty gaslight murderers in the Sweeny Todd mould with gleeful violence, starred in Spring-Heeled Jack, The Terror of Epping Forest, a performance which was broadcast by the BBC. However, when Gerry Raffles booked the Theatre Workshop in for a week towards the end of 1950 for their production of Alice in Wonderland, the building was in a shabby, rundown state, and things hadn’t improved by the time they returned in 1953 for a temporary 6 week residency which gradually settled into a more permanent arrangement. Murray Melvin joined 4 years later in 1957, Workshop productions of Edward II and Richard II having made a deep impression on him. Harry H Corbett’s Richard was his finest hour, according to Joan Littlewood and others who saw him in the role. After years of studying in evening classes at the City Lit Institute, Melvin was able to quit his job as a shipping clerk when he received a grant to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. But, in one of those instinctive moves, seeming irrational and foolish to others, which fundamentally change the course of your life, he rejected his place. Instead, he approached Gerry Raffles and proposed that he join the Workshop as a student, and was welcomed in to the family. His grant became his payment. All of the regular members of the Workshop lived in a semi-communal fashion in the theatre, which they patched up, repaired and decorated to the best of their abilities, making the most of the paltry funds which they amassed. They undertook all manner of tasks in addition to rehearsing and ploughing through the considerable amount of background study which Joan Littlewood insisted upon for each play. Young Murray was immediately set to work painting the front of the building, followed up by the foyer, and recalled with a barely concealed shiver how everyone was constantly attempting to coax the antediluvian basement heater into life. He told us that when the Workshop actors found out which parts they were to play, they would immediately see who was on in the first scene. The heating was turned on an hour before a performance to warm up the auditorium, and they knew that when the curtain went up, the audience would emit a collective shudder at the blast of icy air which would roll over them. Not a sound to boost an actor’s confidence at the start of a performance.

Murray’s apprenticeship was to be short-lived, however. In 1958, he was cast in two substantial roles which would afford him great critical acclaim in plays by two new writers who gained considerable attention, both for their work and as figures of interest in themselves: the Salford teenager Shelagh Delaney and the rambunctious Irish force of nature Brendan Behan. He was Geoffrey in Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, and the young English soldier in Behan’s The Hostage. His readiness to muck in with the Workshop family may have gone a good way towards helping in gaining him his first significant roles. As Joan Littlewood recalls in her anecdotal autobiography Joan’s Book, ‘Murray Melvin, who had been given a Co-op grant to study with us, was always making tea, tidying the green room, taking care of us – Geoffrey to the life – he got the part’. And it was a part which he would take on to a successful run at the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End and, of course, to the 1962 Tony Richardson film version, alongside Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan (Francis Cuka and Avis Bunnage didn’t make the transition from stage to screen). As he says in the National Theatre podcast, he swiftly graduated from a ‘dogsbody in 1957’ to a feted actor. ‘Wasn’t I a lucky lad’, he comments.

Murray and Rita - A Taste of Honey
Both A Taste of Honey and The Hostage demonstrated the Workshop’s concern for uncovering and nurturing new talent, whether it was on the writing or acting side. Delaney and Behan’s scripts were used as a starting point for the development of the performance, with extensive improvisations within the cast and discussions with writer and director producing a collaborative work, which was never considered a final version. The performance was always open to further revisions and rethinks, even during the course of its run. Some writers, such as Delaney and Behan, enjoyed such an active interaction with those who would be bringing their characters and situation to life (and Behan used to add his own on interjections, amendments and ad hoc interventions from the audience during his own plays). Others didn’t take so kindly to what they saw as a dilution of their original text, or a co-option of their authorial voice. Wolf Mankovitz, whose Make Me An Offer was produced in 1959, and Frank Norman, whose Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be was also performed in that year, both had difficulties with this way of doing things.

But as Melvin points out in the National Theatre interview, the Theatre Workshop wasn’t a writer’s theatre, like the Royal Court, in which the text was sacred. All elements of the performance were afforded equal import, with the creation of a genuinely engaging theatrical experience the ultimate aim. The way in which an actor moved was given particular consideration, with the ex-ballet dancer Rudolf Laban's theories being a great influence. The conscious control of movement helped to define the character and the way in which they inhabited their environment, and even their speech inflections and tone, and this was very much a part of the Workshop’s creative process. As Murray poetically put it, it was like ‘dancing the speech’. For Geoffrey in A Taste of Honey, he was ‘light and airy’, whereas for the soldier in The Hostage he was ‘down and solid’, his voice lowering in accordance with his physical movements. Joan Littlewood helped him to achieve this heaviness of movement by attaching chains to the bottoms of his trousers in rehearsals. Background study was also an intensive part of the preparation for a performance, with knowledge of a particular milieu or historical period considered vital for expressing the authentic feel of a work. The script of Oh What A Lovely War, published by Methuen, contains an appendix with an extensive reading list of what is referred to as source material for the play. This study might extend to learning new physical skills, such as World War One military drills for Oh What A Lovely War, or bricklaying for You Won’t Always Be On Top, a play set on a building site during the course of which a wall was gradually built up on stage. But all this wasn’t in the name of realism. Melvin is adamant that naturalism was never the aim of Joan Littlewood’s Workshop productions, which always had a strong theatrical element. There was always an acknowledgement that this was a performance, and one which needed to involve the audience, to draw them in to the action on the stage. They never ventured far into the kitchen sink territory so prevalent in the mid to late 50s. In A Taste of Honey, which might be thought to inhabit that territory, particularly in the light of the film version, the characters all had their theme tunes, which they would enter and exit to, sometimes dancing. When Avis Bunnage’s Helen finds herself alone on stage, with her daughter off in another room, she turns to the audience and addresses them instead, as if taking them into her confidence.

Vaudeville and music hall elements were often a part of these physical performances, which also seemed to acknowledge the history of the building in which they were enacted. There was also a healthy dose of cheerful vulgarity (something which made the Lord Chamberlain, still the official theatrical censor at this time, get twitchy) and humour which stuck two fingers up to authority. It’s fitting that a significant number of Workshop performers went on to become well known in film and television comedy: Barbara Windsor, Harry H Corbett, Victor Spinetti, Roy Kinnear, Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce (George and Mildred, of course). All of these really came to the fore in Oh What A Lovely War in 1963, which was a perfect piece for the building, drawing on the kind of popular songs which might once have echoed around its walls, and looking at the First World War from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers who were largely drawn from the kind of working people who came to the Stratford Theatre in the Edwardian era. The screens upon which photographs and statistics detailing the terrible facts of the war projected also recall the dioramas and bioscope screens from the days of the Fredericks family. There’s a sensitivity to place in this and other Workshop productions, whether that be to the character of the surrounding area or to the atmosphere of the building and its accumulation of past entertainments, faintly echoing down the decades. Oh What A Lovely War was framed as a pierrot show, as performed by the Merry Roosters, with rough khaki being donned over the white silks as the play progressed. Murray was one of the pierrot players, alongside the likes of Brian Murphy, Victor Spinetti, Grifitth Davies and John Gower. The songs are very affecting, sometimes bitterly ironic, sometimes strangely tender.

Joan amongst the rubble - but the Theatre still stands
Murray emphasised how important it had always been to make the audience feel welcome, to feel that the theatre was their own. They would be greeted as they came in, and possibly even before, as they approached the building. Members of the cast were also encouraged to go down to the bar after a performance, where Gerry Raffles was also likely to be found, and talk with the audience, thanking them for coming. He continues to evince impeccable old school manners to this day, and we were made to feel very much at home. Welcoming us all, he asked if we had all been to the theatre before. Only Mrs W and I hadn’t, so he pronounced us doubly welcome. He asked us what had made us come along, and I mentioned having seen the film of Sparrows Can’t Sing and read up about the Workshop as a consequence. ‘Oh, well done’, he replied, before making sure I knew that Sparrers Can’t Sing (as the stage version was called) had first been performed here. I subsequently read in Joan’s Book that he was none too keen on the film version (which I like), but of course he was far too polite and accommodating to say that here. He still clearly has an enormous affection for both Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles, whilst not in any way sentimentalising them. He does believe that theirs was one of the great romances, however, and it’s clear that when Raffles died suddenly of a heart attack on 11th April 1975 at the age of 51, she was left utterly devastated, and effectively left the theatre for good. Murray sounded quite emotional when he said that they all still raise a glass to his memory on that day, and he always sheds a tear. But the legacy of the Workshop lives on, particularly in the work that the theatre does with young people from the area. We were ushered in by one immaculately stylish young man who has joined the theatre as a result of one of these programmes, in much the same way that Murray himself did all those years ago. He is closely involved with these youth programmes, and you can be sure that he inculcates these young aspirants with the ethos and spirit of Joan and Gerry. And for my part, that sense of being welcomed and made to feel that the Stratford Theatre was a place to feel at home means that I will surely return in the future.

If you want to find out more, you can’t go wrong with Murray’s own short book The Theatre Royal: A History of the Building (yours for a measly fiver), and also the book of Theatre Workshop photos which he edited (The Art of the Theatre Workshop). For those of you living in Devon, there are a number of books in the library system (all at Exeter, but you can get them out through the inter-library loan system). Michael Coren’s Theatre Royal: 100 Years of Stratford East covers the history from Charles Dillon to the era after Gerry Raffles’ death and Joan Littlewood’s departure. The Theatre Workshop Story by Howard Goorney follows the Workshop from the travelling days with Joan and Jimmie Miller (later Ewan MacColl) in the 30s and 40s through to the Stratford years. Nadine Holdsworth’s Joan Littlewood looks at her life and her working methods, and includes a detailed analysis of Oh What A Lovely War. Joan's Book, Littlewood’s autobiography, is a thoroughly readable and conversational take on her life and work. There’s also the CD issue (on the bizarrely named Must Close Saturday label) of the original cast recording of Oh What A Lovely War in the Performing Arts Library, as well as the Methuen published play script (only an approximation of the performance, obviously, as above comments have made clear), so you can sing along to such old favourites as Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser, Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy, I’ll Make a Man of You, Hush Here Comes a Whizzbang, When This Lousy War Is Over, I Want to Go Home and I Don’t Want to be a Soldier. With this year’s Armistice Day falling on the 11/11/11, it seems like a propitious time to resurrect the old songs once more and gain a sense of the tenor of those terrible years.


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