This was our first visit to the Theatre Royal since we went with my parents and took Tom to see “Puss in Boots” or “Dick Whittington” – I actually can’t quite remember which but it had all of the traditional ingredients plus the contemporary addition of a current personality who in this case was Ian Botham who whacked bread rolls into the auditorium with a cricket bat, what else? – when Tom was about seven or eight. So quite a long time ago.
I’m glad to report that the theatre looked as good as I remembered it except smaller than I remembered. Perhaps I was a child as well back then. It is one of those classic, provincial, theatres that date back to the Victorian era although this one was originally built in 1805 but rebuilt in 1863 in its current form after being destroyed by fire.
Today the lower ground floors have been converted to bars and a restaurant and it has a very welcoming and quite homely feel. The staff were very friendly, welcoming and helpful – what’s going wrong?
Our first play we booked quite a while ago. It was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production of Thomas Middleton’s “It’s a Mad World my Masters”. Written in 1605 it fell into the genre known as “city comedies”. This version was updated to the 1950’s which might seem a bit of a stretch but it worked very well indeed given the play’s sexual politics. A black, female jazz-blues singer backed by a strong live band acted as a kind of chorus commenting by song on the action while occasionally members of the cast moved the action along with a song.
The fifties allowed for a modern setting in which issues of male ownership of female sexuality and amoral characters on the make still rang true. The characters all have those deliciously suggestive names such as Sir Bounteous Progress, Richard Follywit and Master Shortrod Harebrain. The play is full of cynical amoral rogues and lots of high farce and is very bawdy to boot. Much of the biting commentary on contemporary Jacobean mores reminds one of the surprisingly explicit caricatures of a Rowlandson more than a century later.
Needless to say the cast were superb and as we were sitting in the second row of the stalls we felt as if we were practically on stage with the actors who frequently talked to the audience in asides during the action and I had a glass of water thrown over me right at the beginning during a wild bar scene. We might not have been in London but were at least seeing the same production as would have been seen in either London or Stratford and we could walk to and from the theatre with ease through lovely old Georgian streets.
Just a few days later we were back to see something a little more middle-brow – Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” which was originally her best selling crime novel (100 million copies worldwide) with what today we would consider the shockingly offensive title of “Ten Little Niggers” that being the title of the English “blackface” song that features in the plot. The novel was first dramatised for the stage in 1943 and that general period seemed to have been retained by this production although the set for the house to which the guests are all invited was strongly Art Deco.
The tale turns upon the question of who has the right to administer retribution if justice does not seem to be served. Each character is guilty of a “murder” that remains undetected and unpunished. Who is entitled to decide their fate? Which, if any, of the characters will survive till the end? Gripping stuff indeed!
Once again a strong cast that included faces familiar from TV were entertaining to watch. I managed to work out who must have “dunnit” – or perhaps it should be who was “doin’it” – by about a half to two-thirds of the way through although it seemed near the end that I was going to be wrong in my guess as the plot twists and turns were well maintained right to the very end.