Edinburgh Fringe 2011
It’s the day that Harold Wilson knocked the aristocratic Sir Alec Douglas-Home off his perch in No. 10 Downing Street. Britain is about to change, forever. And the dressing room of London’s Victoria Palace Theatre is about to show us how and why.
We’re in a dressing room in London’s Victoria Palace Theatre, home to the Black and White Minstrel Show, on the evening of October 16th, 1964, the day that the old order represented by the Tories under Sir Alec Douglas-Home were ejected from Government after thirteen years of rule by the new and apparently more prosaic form of Labour under Harold Wilson. Two miles down the road in the Old Vic, Sir Lawrence Olivier is preparing to go on stage as Othello. Wearing blackface.
Paul Haley is a former Black and White Minstrel. His play, ably directed by Robert McWhir, was written in 2007 and is both an engaging nostalgic comedy and a subtle commentary on a pivotal period of social change in twentieth century Britain.
The dressing room fills with actors from the ‘black’ side of the show which ran for fourteen years from 1958 until societal mores killed it and the art of blacking up off forever. Mostyn (John Griffiths) is “mother” to them all, their link to the theatre management on which they each depend for their daily bread. Roy (the rubber faced Peter Whitfield) prefers to be known as Royston and is short, plump, pompous – ideally suited to being the union representative. Firm in their upholding of traditional values, these two contrast nicely with Dave (Tommy O’Neill) and Merv (Will Chitty) both young, desirous of change and not afraid to challenge the status quo. And Merv is a fair dinkum Aussie to boot, which provides a ready source of dressing room craic. Bossing them all about is the wonderful Wendy (Sarah Redmond), a towering figure of a show girl. Messing them about is Big Mary (Dave Lynn), a queen of drag queens if ever there was one, with an ego and attitude to match.
The tightly crafted dressing room badinage of this cross section of 1960’s society is a throwback to the days when the colour of your skin could be used in the creation of humour, when homosexuality was still locked in the closet and when a dwarf was a dwarf, not a person of diminished physical stature.
And, all the while, in the background is Pyrex (Marc Small), dresser to the four men. Pyrex is black. But he’s a pragmatist, in addition to acting as conscience to his various masters. He also acts as the glue in an increasingly fractious environment which threatens to go into meltdown when it becomes evident that the camp and short in the company have not been selected to appear before HM Queen in the Royal Variety Performance. They have instead been sent to appear at a charity event for the Not Forgotten in the Royal Stables.
Yet Pyrex can see through all the hypocrisy laid out in front of him. As he says, changing the politicians doesn’t make much difference – you need to change the institutions. But his still waters run deep, as the mystery surrounding the identity of his girlfriend ultimately reveals. He, in more ways than any of the others, represents the future of Britain as a more tolerant, more caring and open society.
This is an outstandingly well written and exquisitely staged piece of theatre and merits a 5* award. The acting is first rate throughout with a lot of care put into getting the physical appearance of the cast in tune with the words they are given to articulate. Each is so completely comfortable in character that you feel you are eavesdropping on a conversation, not listening to actors delivering a script. And there is also that quintessential cocktail of tension and bonhomie that you get in any dressing room.
Indeed, the dressing room set has all the dazzle and clutter you might expect of such an environment. Great care and attention has been given to using props, clothes and make-up typical of that period. And it’s a sea of tranquillity one moment and a scene of chaos the next as the actors rush offstage to switch costume for their next number before sprinting back out of the door towards the starlight. Such rapid movement has obviously been carefully choreographed and extensively rehearsed. And of course, there’s the script – full of humour as well as being a nicely understated commentary on the social revolution that was Britain in the 1960’s.
Spread the word – this is great theatre that will strike a chord with all generations. Nice to see, then, that a number in the audience were the baby boomers at the sharp end of that social revolution. Who says nostalgia ain’t what it used to be!