Reviewed by Simon Jenner
14 June 2022
Michael Billington is right. This is an absolutely necessary theatre book. Indeed it complements his own State of the Nation from 2007, covering as it does much the same period: Billington from 1945-2007, with Aleks Sierz’s Good Nights Out, 1940-2015.
Taking bearings from John McGrath’s 1981 polemic A Good Night Out, Good Nights Out creates a complete hidden history, reveals not only the shock of the past but traces today’s tastes, echoing back things we never guessed.
Sierz’s premise is simple. And original. Chronicle the fortunes of British theatre – and thus chronicle social change – exclusively through its mega-hit shows that surpassed 1,000 performances. There’s ones we still see, like The Mousetrap running since 1952; those obliviated (the only word for it, particularly intriguing); and those like the sex comedies of the 1960s-70s, recalled by titles or genre if they’re remembered at all. Sierz ‘aims to explore the shows that not only have delighted millions of people across the world, but which also have something to say about the anxieties of their historical time.’ That’s a key sentence, though stylistically unfair on Sierz: his prose is consistently more elegant.
More, Sierz chronicles these shows as Billington did, but does so chronologically in each chapter, not book. There’s social change, challenge, sexual taste, class struggle and complacency. Sierz introduces and interpolates each treatment with other mega-hits, often better-known ones. With shows bouncing off each other’s theatres’ walls, Sierz performs a deft, witty telling: shows mutually enriched – and antagonized – each other. Actors appearing in one would write another. Other shows corpsed whole genres.
As Sierz addresses in ‘Research Methods’ – even the Introduction is neatly sub-sectioned – “This book is not about hit shows but about mega-hits, shows that are superlatively successful.”
These reach an apogee in the chapter on Class. Indeed, it’s the subsong and conclusion of his book. Though placed fourth of the seven themes it’s pivotally dead-centre and class radiates outwards; it’s where Sierz ends.
Beyond those chief genres like War, Crime, Family, Class, History, Fantasy whole other genres like Sex also sank: and those sub-genres or period pieces like the National Service play, for instance, a universal experience that suddenly stopped when the experience did. Whereas wartime plays glimmer with nostalgic patina, many plays written during it, either to celebrate or portray service life or escape altogether, just vanished; as if they never existed.
Sierz’s book too makes us recognise the past’s another country, the ultra-familiar jostling with kinds of entertainment we’ve forgotten, can’t imagine. He charts too the disappearance of some genres – family, class, history and fantasy to name four – that erupt with force again after the Millennium.
Still others, like God-Rock, Sierz covers in parenthesis, in History. I’m not sure about this; it’s a brief phenomenon: yet it too re-emerged.
Sierz in a penetrating introduction maps this with examples of near-misses within his own criteria, including mentioning that even dramas like Look Back in Anger don’t make the cut; despite notoriety or éclat then and now. He addresses the actual runs of famed plays versus those evanescent hits supremely of their time – and almost as supremely signifiers of it, markers for a territory of feeling.
Most of all – as we’ve seen – he examines plays by genre, chronologically in each. It’s a supremely well-laid-out book. Handy to use, neat typeset and large format, it’s sub-sectioned by three or four key plays discussed in each chapter.
And there’s another shift too: television and film, even the Internet, raise some super-genres. It’s worth tracing them.
War: Comic, Tragic and Nostalgic
Nothing dates like war. But sepia and amber have a way with dying. It’s interesting too that Terence Rattigan’s 1943 gender-swerving romp While the Sun Shines has just had two revivals at the Orange Tree either side of the pandemic (2019, 2021), transforming our reception of it as from the time of Rattigan’s faded hits before 1946.
But there’s millions-like-us works like R F Delderfield’s Worm’s Eye View (1945), authored by the novelist of e.g. A Horseman Riding By and To Serve Them All My Days – both turned into television series as Worm’s Eye View wasn’t. Sierz later points out that it outdid J. B. Priestley’s 1945 An Inspector Calls, though doesn’t add that not only the film but Stephen Daldry’s 1992 revival (which he mentions elsewhere) has played ever since. You have to draw the line somewhere. Perpetual revivals make another argument.
Sierz chronicles a cross-fertilization of influences there’s no space to map here. But these mega-hits are littered with how a better-known name ghosts a promising script into life. Thus Colin Morris’s Seagulls Over Sorrento (1950) got licked into shape by Brian Rix when the Whitehall Theatre was empty after Worm’s Eye View. In fact its author Hugh Hastings was acting in the latter when he wrote his own play, focusing on working-class demob.
Just as John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger while taking a small part in Hastings’ Reluctant Heroes, (also 1950, embracing National Service); thus with Seagulls, both plays end-stop a period. But you see how the genre slips away from the war and National Service generation even before the latter’s out. Though the television series Get Some In! from 1976-77 pays homage to its now middle-aged audience like some revenant.
Indeed one play not mentioned here, Arnold Wesker’s Chips with Everything from 1962, arrived in the year National Service ended to preach its funeral oration. Not a play designed for long runs, it instead owns a dour, brilliant endurance ending in Billington’s 101 Greatest Plays instead.
So the next war mega-hit is a jump of nearly 60 years – 2007’s War Horse, Michael Morpurgo’s story less dramatized than realized in several dimensions by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. As we’ll see, it’s one of a new breed from the subsidized theatre (pace Patrick Marber’s Rattigan-inspired dictum on commercial theatre’s total efficacy): multi-dimensioned Millennial plays, spiralling out like String Theory on fluorine.
Crime: Classical, Farcical, and Postmodern
If – supremely – The Mousetrap from 1952 and Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth from 1970 still hold attention, it’s notable how even this genre’s slipped: Simple Spymen (1958) is more farce, its recently-deceased author John Chapman more famous now for plays like Dry Rot (1952) and its television avatar, Rising Damp; but with Sleuth and in particular Richard Harris’s The Business of Murder (1981) we encounter a genre perhaps less comfortable with itself: postmodern perhaps, certainly post-police. But then – well Sierz can actually be charged with that most heinous crime: spoilers, yes, if you want to know that plot without bothering about the play, it’s here too. I’m surprised he’s not been impaled on a bed of cheese.
Sex: Comic, Episodic and Ironic
Here we traverse just five years. It’s breath-taking. How from Terence Frisby’s 1966 There’s a Girl in My Soup strutting bald assumptions (that young women like their boyfriends’ fathers better), we cruise to pornographer Paul Raymond’s version of a French farce Pyjama Tops (1969): another Whitehall confection, with naked swimmers in an aquarium catching colds. It’s a 1950s construct turned explicit: being French, such things narrowly swerved censorship then; lassitude extended to French sex comedy. But by 1969 reaching for your dictionary seems odd – one of the few things Sierz doesn’t have time to explore.
It’s notably bawdy-corrupted French that explains the otherwise incomprehensible title of Kenneth Tynan’s multi-authored Oh! Calcutta!. Like Pyjama Tops it’s a study in French contrasts too, as one celebrates wet/dry nudity, while Tynan’s compilation (Beckett withdrew his contribution – it was the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize) had its cultural pretensions mocked by emergent feminist protests.
Anthony Marriott and Alistair Foot’s No Sex, Please, We’re British from 1971 shows how fast the genre curdled back to farcical comedy, traditional in form and beginning to show its creak. Porn films, videos, finally the Internet (there’s an excellent Commons connection) finished what feminism and a fading appetite for exploitation began.
Family: Traditional, Redemptive and Fractured
Some genres – like War – revive too. If Philip King and Falkland Cary’s ‘Sailor, Beware!’ from 1955 shows how post-war teenagers twitched their muscles, it’s both a successor to Harold Brighouse’s 1915 Hobson’s Choice with the mother-in-law cast as quasi-villain, and state-of-stasis hit.
The one innovation: ‘Sailor, Beware!’s initial Worthing cast transferred to the West End and made a star of the actor playing matriarchal Emma: Peggy Mount. Ken Tynan’s barb about King is deliciously reproduced, but Sierz makes a point. Indeed Sierz quotes critics tellingly throughout, mostly to their credit. And sometimes, hilariously, not.
It’s astonishing to think Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine dates from 1965, but there’s fissures. Sierz points these out: the iron patriarch almost quotes from Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957) extolling live working-class culture much as Wesker does – including attending Messiah – to the television he switches off as soon as he comes in.
That single act tells you everything about his link to Chips with Everything, whose anti-hero extols the same thing from the stance of upper-class patronage; to the tyrannical fiat of switching of in front of his grown children.
Nevertheless, the scenario’s dauntingly ancient, could have dated from the 1930s. Even the shadow of pregnancy – giving the play its title – is never explored, is merely latent, never addressed. This was the year of Edward Bond’s Saved with a baby stoned to death; something critics drew attention to. Yet it’s kin to the matriarchal elements in Coronation Street that began airing in December 1960.
With The Man Most Likely To… from 1968 we’re in different territory. Joyce Rayburn had a string of hits from the 1960s and early 1970s, then vanished. Feminism though doesn’t quite percolate through as the liberated young woman brought home by her boyfriend is attracted to his father. Perhaps it should have been called The Man Most Likely to Have a Girl in His Soup. With its self-congratulatory take on older men appealing to younger women it’s hello Leslie Phillips, the show’s progenitor, godfather and star of the inevitable film. There’s a whole paedo-genre here, culminating with Breezy (1973) starring William Holden.
Like War, indeed several genres (Class, to an extent, and Fantasy) there’s a hiatus in Family megahits as what excites shifts to another genre; hiatus allows recalibration and breakout.
That happens as the dysfunctional and redemptive revive in dramatizing a novel: like War Horse then. This time in Simon Stephens’ crafting of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time from 2012 to both a three-dimensioned anatomy of torn-up families and the flat-screen world of its young protagonist. Like many millennial shows, it’s a triumph of multi-dimension: think War Horse. But the way the stage is used to light up pathways of neuro-connection then actual journeying is both innovative and moving. We’re in someone’s head, someone vulnerable too. Like the play’s protagonist, the family play needs to travel for a while underground.
Class: Musical, Parodic and Political
Despite its dour parameters, the four works Sierz discusses accelerate in interest. They’re prefaced by the way that Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady and Oliver! as well as West Side Story shaped post-war taste; or rather gave it a permission and expression it clamoured for.
Just as we’re told by politicians that we’re entering a classless society in the 1980s and ‘90s, the genre hots up. Northern writers are having none of it, and the West End laps up a creative defiance towards politicians who assert we’ve never had it so classless.
That’s not how it started. Money’s the only possible entrée. John Taylor and ex-brigadier David Heneker’s Charlie Girl (1965), allows the eponymous heroine, youngest of a trio of aristos, to marry for love: a working-class boy who half-way through wins the pools and (after conscience-clunks) saves the family fortune. It reminds me of the adage that the upper classes didn’t so much accept Noël Coward as swallow him up.
It’s hardly surprising that after the false dawn of mid-Sixties class liberation we meet two works from 1983 at opposite ends of the spectrum: yet it’s the working-class story that endures, as it will later on. That too, suggests a degree of voyeurism emphatically not the aims of Willy Russell or Lee Hall.
Unlike Rayburn, Denise Deegan (b. 1952) was aware of feminist groundswells and knew as a stage manager how to manipulate an audience. Her Daisy Pulls It Off (1983) was originally more ironic, as Billington noted. He laments that by the time it reached the West End this retro-take on girls schools (think Roedean, Deegan did) it was a self-congratulatory take on a theme that Sierz points out runs from Oliver! through this piece and straight into Billy Elliot.
How a meritocratic working-class scholarship girl can make ‘good’ is a term surely loaded. That she turns out to be an aristo after all is mock-homage to the interwar (and post-war, think Douglas-Home and Hugh Williams) craze for blood over nurture; a theme bitterly treated in Rodney Ackland’s fine Before the Dance from 1949 where the aristocrat in disguise rejects any respectability. Last revived at the Almeida in 2013, it’s hardly likely to buck the West End trend.
Russell’s Blood Brothers (1983) certainly embodies early-Eighties anti-Thatcherite angst reacting back over decades. There was initially some nasty backlash but this was the first of the northern broadsides – involving playwrights like Alan Ayckbourn (more produced than Shakespeare but with no 1,000+ West end smash), Alan Bleasdale, John Godber, Jim Cartwright. But as Sierz shrewdly points out, it wasn’t a Cinderella story in its entirety, as most of these class musicals are: it fuses the twin myth (Benedict Nightingale pointed out the power of this) and produced possibly the most lasting of musicals on class, if not the most sophisticated or profound.
That went to the next smash – by way of Sierz’s commentary on Les Mis. And it’s Blair’s Britain that produces this other mega-hit from a film (that Nineties phenomenon, parallel with Juke-Box Musicals). Billy Elliot the Musical (2005) mightn’t feature Elton John’s greatest music, but the writer of the film, Lee Hall, creator of Spoonfaced Steinberg and later The Pitman Painters – infuses the lyrics with stunning eloquence, raw power and solidarity. And Hall notes ironically a core of Thatcherite individualism as Billy triumphs while the community – who ultimately unite to give him their blessing – dies.
History: Gothic, Edwardian and Pastiche
Halfway through this chapter there’s a lengthy aside on what you might call the God is (Not) Rocked – the religious musical with Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat (1967), Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar (both 1970) all mentioned though only the last covered in depth, with a glance ahead to The Book of Mormon from 2013.
Sierz categorizes these as a curious offshoot of hippy history, and admittedly there aren’t many more examples before you get to school tours. I wouldn’t have minded though a separate if brief chapter on this phenomenon. It taps off-beat into universal dreams, but again, might seem a hot topic if any sceptical analysis is brought to bear.
It’s a lot easier to tick boxes to another Andrew Lloyd-Webber masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera (1986). Sierz locates its power in the erotic pull of its star Sarah Brightman over the composer, and the need for just about everything that erupts in it: the gothic, mild horror, Beauty and the Beast, one-sided if not entirely unreciprocated passion, redemption (a strong theme too) and a perennial love-triangle. Sierz is too tactful to speculate how much Lloyd-Webber might have identified with his eponymous character.
Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1987) certainly provides far more of one genre, horror, in Stephen Mallatratt’s economic adaptation, designed for a couple of dark weeks at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Reviewing it recently, I couldn’t help feeling the sonics and other elements really creak, and despite renewing the cast every nine months, it’s a chiller that can tire. Yet it’s the longest-running play after The Mousetrap.
Another work rescued from its creators, here Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble – always credited, who adapted the original Buchan – there’s Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps (2006). Barlow had the sense to go straight to Hitchcock’s 1935 film, and set it then, not in 1914 Britain. Again Sierz tightens his thesis: class and a settled version of history is here infused with Artaud-lite physical theatre, courtesy of Maria Aitken. Audiences laugh at the ironies yet go away with a newly-squared jaw.
As so often recently it’s Nicholas Hytner’s vision which saw him badger Richard Bean and others into crafting Goldoni’s 1746 commedia dell’arte masterpiece as One Man, Two Guvnors (2011). Hytner even had James Corden in mind. As Sierz notes this really ticks every box in the British psyche: as he quotes the show’s physical theatre creator Cal McCrystal: “Restoration explicitness, high-speed farce, camp pantomime, Victorian music-hall innuendo, Carry On films, Benny Hill, and cross-dressing.” And groan-worthy puns adds Sierz. Like War Horse and The Curious Incident, this wholescale reinvention of novels, plays and stories is a millennial thing, frankly more inventive than many earlier adaptations and mega-hits. All too come from Hytner’s time at the NT; all were subsidized and developed.
Fantasy: Whimsy, Camp and Sci-Fi
It’s fitting Sierz’s last section treats of fantasy, as it’s the nation’s dream-life Sierz addresses. The need to escape, the need too to indulge more consciously in those myths like Cinderella that percolate around other genres. Naturally there’s more intro, more discussions of other works which bolster Sierz’s conclusions. But by now you’ll want to buy this book.
From Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds’ Salad Days (1954) with its sweet sexless couple and gently subversive piano that makes even ministers dance, British whimsy’s out there as a virgin. And of course that flying saucer with alien Electrode suggests they might do things differently there. Sierz doesn’t mention Mary Poppins but the Shermans must have taken note. Seeing it you can see its charm, its subversive use of ‘gay’ which was underground but unmistakable code at the time; its premise and that wisp of a score – there’s about two good numbers in it that actually stick (IMHO). But they’re very good.
How the Royal Court Upstairs gave birth to Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show (1973) is legendary enough, but again Sierz addresses this one survival (he doesn’t quite say that) of the great sexual romp era. The reason is that all kinds of sexual agency, women’s, gay, trans and all LGBTQ are prefigured here in a way that not only doesn’t date with sexism, but allows a riot of sexuality – with an audience now thoroughly tamed with ritual –to erupt regionally once every couple of years. And the melodies nail it.
Bob Carlton’s confection of Shakespeare’s lost sci-fi masterpiece full of quotes and rejigging the 1956 sci-fi film more explicitly to The Tempest, always seems, dare one say it, flimsier. But the librettist knowing how to tell a good story, and the cleverness of Carlton’s revisions, has given Return to the Forbidden Planet (that reached the West End in 1989) abundant life. However something far more wicked than the Id this way comes. Oh, Wicked from 2006 does get a mention, but it’s passed over.
Roald Dahl’s 1988 story almost begged to be turned into Matilda the Musical (2010). This time it was the RSC’s adventurous artistic director Michael Boyd who persuaded dark dramatist Dennis Kelly to work with Australian Tim Minchin who wrote the lyrics too. The result is not only a successor to Oliver! and Billy Elliot, but one feels a coming-of-age of the way the adult undermines the child, and how the child fights back. As Sierz notes too, there’s nothing of the tomboy in Matilda: no boy-substitute but sheer brains and personal agency. To cite H G Wells: ‘If you don’t like your life, you can change it.’ Sierz in his final remarks on this chapter claims of fantasy: ‘… our inner child is being pampered as never before.’
“When the British people dream collectively, they revisit the neverlands of popular culture” concludes Sierz in his paean to the popular show infusing the popular imagination. More, it gives a wild permission to dream in new ways, less and less perhaps in overly reassuring ones, and not only registers that dream-life, but as Sierz argues throughout, alters it.
This is a book that even this explication can only map by lightning. Sierz pinpoints the successes of those shows cited, points to others that fail, or even those like Salad Days that don’t cross the Atlantic – One Man, Two Guvnors had a bumpier time too. All the more prescient then is Sierz’s anatomy of the peculiar effect of these British-based shows on their home audience. Universality’s there all right, those great Broadway shows also created a space for a British response, a creative dreaming in some genres. But Sierz’s great strength, without addressing different political climates as Billington did, is to take the pulse of British dreaming as manifested in mega-hits. He finds it stronger – sometimes stranger – than ever. More, he tells us why.
Methuen Drama, 2022, £22