Category Archives: Theatre

Simon Jay’s play is not about John Lewis or John Lewis but John Lewis

The things you miss when you do not go to the Edinburgh Fringe…

This year, I missed the extraordinary Simon Jay reprising his highly-praised Trumpageddon show and a new show @JohnLewis: Never Knowingly Undertweeted. The latter is about the American academic and “computer science educator” who owns the @johnlewis Twitter handle and gets mistakenly deluged by enquiries intended for the famed chain of British department stores.

The British store chain’s slogan is Never Knowingly Undersold.

Simon Jay answering my questions

Last night, I went to see@JohnLewis: Never Knowingly Undertweeted – only on at the Drayton Arms Theatre in London until Saturday.

And, this morning, I Skyped Simon Jay for a pre-arranged chat. He overslept  and was barely conscious. 

I always find this is the best way to chat with people for blogs…


JOHN: So what did John Lewis, the American, say when you contacted him?

SIMON: He is very modest and self-deprecating. So he said: “Why would anyone write a play about me?”

JOHN: Modest and self-deprecating? Are you sure he’s an American?

SIMON: Yes. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

JOHN: He was shocked you wanted to write a play about him?

John Lewis, confusing but not confused

SIMON: (LAUGHS) Humbled. Originally, the play was going to be much more like a Jon Ronson investigation, where I tried to get into his life and how it all came about. He gave his blessing but then said he was incredibly busy. So it turned into a sort of Joyce Grenfell character piece.

JOHN: Did he have to approve everything?

SIMON: No. I mean, I wasn’t going to take the piss. I wasn’t going to betray him. He didn’t even see the script. He said he didn’t have time to read anything, so he just took it all on trust, really. I put updates from our rehearsal on Twitter. I don’t know anything about his mother, but I portrayed her as some kind of religious zealot. I Tweeted a picture of me full-crazy and he said: “Oh! It’s uncanny!”

JOHN: When you quote him saying things in the play, are those quotes he gave you?

SIMON: Well, based on things that he said, yeah. When I interviewed him, I was only able to get a couple of lines on each question I asked him. And he did give a few interviews early on to people like the Daily Telegraph.

JOHN: Has the quirky story been picked up in the US or only in the UK?

US Congressman John Lewis

SIMON: Well, John Lewis, the store, isn’t known in America. In the US, he is confused with Congressman John Lewis.

JOHN: Who you also mention in the play.

SIMON: Yes, he gets a lot of racist abuse on Twitter intended for the Congressman, which I was going to explore. But then I thought it might be a dramatic turning point too far – from a light-hearted show about mistaken identity to the racist underbelly of the US.

JOHN: Why racist abuse?

SIMON: Because the Senator he shares a name with is a black Senator from Georgia, a civil rights campaigner who talks a lot about how racist America is. So lots of people take to Twitter to abuse him (LAUGHS) to prove how right he is!

JOHN: You talked to the John Lewis Partnership – the stores – about the play…

SIMON: Yes. They were a bit bewildered at first. But it’s very much a warm, fluffy thing; John Lewis are hardly going to be offended and sue me. And the story is not about them; it’s about mistaken identity. The fact it is about John Lewis is incidental, really.

JOHN: It’s all good, light-hearted publicity for them.

SIMON: Well, some people genuinely think it’s a conspiracy – that John Lewis have employed someone to pretend to be this man with their name!

JOHN: And the store’s reaction?

John Lewis: amused and bemused

SIMON: They just think: Oh! It’s just an amusing thing that has happened and we don’t really get involved, but we are very grateful for the fact he forwards everything on.

JOHN: He does?

SIMON: He always puts the @JLPartners tag when he answers on Twitter. (They are also @jlandpcustserv)

JOHN: In the play, you have some characters who are John Lewis staff reacting to things, sending him presents and so on.

SIMON: Well, they really did send him a hamper at Christmas and even embroidered his @JohnLewis Twitter handle into a cushion. It’s all fact. That’s all true.

JOHN: The staff in the play are slightly bitchy to each other. Did John Lewis, the store, object?

SIMON: Well, their Regional Marketing Manager came to see a preview. I think they were checking to see it wasn’t libellous. She liked it. I think she just accepted we all know characters like that.

JOHN: Any chance you might be in one of the famous traditional John Lewis Christmas ads on TV?

Never knowingly under-represented online

SIMON: Well, apparently the management did talk to the director of this year’s ad and there was some talk about that and they were looking to get the ‘real’ John Lewis involved and the way to do that was to have lots of different John Lewises in the ad and I would be one of the John Lewises. Maybe they would have had archive footage of the Congressman. But, like all these things, it was probably just an idea on a piece of paper and they will have gone with something much more outlandish.

JOHN: So whither the show now? The West End and Vegas?

SIMON: There’s a thought of taking it on tour, but I think I will have a break.

JOHN: Doing what?

SIMON: Sleeping.


The John Lewis Partnership’s 2017 Christmas ad is on YouTube…

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Mike Raffone on street performance, Dada and his cabaret club for misfits

Mike Raffone bills himself as an “Eccentric Entertainer”.

I saw his Brain Rinse show at the Edinburgh Fringe last year – it was billed as ‘Puppetry of The Audience’ – and I went to his monthly Cabaret Rinse club at the Elephant & Castle in London last month. It is wonderfully unpredictable. The next one is this coming Friday.

“Why,” I asked, “was your Fringe show called Brain Rinse and your London club is called Cabaret Rinse?”

“Because, hopefully it rinses your brain. Not a brainwash. Just a mild rinse.”

“How would you describe Cabaret Rinse?”

“A club for misfits. We did a similar thing about five years ago in Peckham for about six months – The Royal National Theatre of Fools. I just decided we needed a National Theatre for idiots, but it proved quite an expensive hobby.”

Cabaret Rinse is all variety acts,” I said. “Not stand-up comedy…”

The ringmaster of anarchic entertainment – Mike Raffone

“Well,” Mike responded, “what is stand-up? Cabaret Rinse is comedy definitely. Funny definitely. Out there for sure. Interesting I hope. Entertaining I hope.

“When we did Theatre of Fools, we did have a secret non-stand-up policy. We don’t have that with Cabaret Rinse. Last month we had Candy Gigi. You could say she’s a stand-up, but… she’s one in a million, really. There’s bits of stand-up but bits of brilliant clowning. I see that in all the people I like.”

“Candy Gigi is wonderful,” I said, “but I’m a bit wary of the way people use the word ‘clowning’ nowadays.”

“I hate the way the word is used,” said Mike.

“Why?”

“It’s the connotation. The art aesthetic. I think great clowning tends to be anarchistic. I would say The Greatest Show on Legs is great clowning. Or Ken Campbell’s Roadshow.”

“I agree with you,” I said, “that The Greatest Show on Legs ARE clowns, but I’m not quite sure why.”

“I think it’s well rehearsed,” said Mike, “but it looks like it’s thrown together.”

Greatest Show on Legs’ balloon dance in 2012

“Well,” I said, “with the Balloon Dance, the exact choreography is complicated and vital because it builds and it’s all about narrowly missing seeing the bits.”

“Ragged but in a great way,” agreed Mike. “It was by far the most hysterical thing that whole Fringe when I saw them in 2012.”

“Well,” I said, “they feel a bit like street performers but are not, though Martin Soan did start The Greatest Show on Legs as an adult Punch & Judy act. You, though, are basically a street performer at heart.”

“I dunno about ‘at heart’,” Mike replied. “I’m a performer at heart. But I’ve certainly done a lot of street performing. With Cabaret Rinse and Brain Rinse the idea is to take the energy and instantaneous edginess of street performing – of What the fuck is going to happen? – but NOT just do a street show indoors.

“Street theatre is so specific to where it is. There’s load of people there shopping and I’m gonna grab their attention. It’s the big trick. It’s grabbing the attention. If it’s a joke, it cannot be a subtle one. Everything’s big.  So I want to bring that kind of bigness and edginess and freshness into a – not an arty but a – theatrical setting.”

“You trained as an actor,” I said.

“…a misfit theatre course…”

“I remember, when I was a kid, around 16, ushering for my local theatre and seeing the Cardiff Lab and thinking This is weird. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on. This guy is scary but I love it. Wow! This is incredible! 

“Then I did a theatre degree at Leicester Polytechnic which was a bit of a misfit theatre course. It was run by this guy – a little bit of a maverick – who wanted to make his own theatre school – a bit like Jacques Lecoq – and he didn’t want it to be conventional. But he also realised the only way he could get funding at that time – in the mid-1980s – was to hide behind the auspices of an academic institution.

“His philosophy was that he was going to run the course but try and have as little as possible to do with the bureaucratic workings of the polytechnic. I got to see things like Footsbarn. It was a very practical, creative course and I think I got a taste there for theatre that was out of the ordinary.”

“So you got a taste for the bizarre.”

“Yes. I got into street theatre 30 years ago. I remember going down to Covent Garden and seeing street shows – it was all quite new then – and thinking: I don’t have the balls to do that. But, within a month, I was doing it. Covent Garden was quite interesting at that time in the late 1980s. It was sort of mixing with New Variety.”

Mike Raffone, street entertainer, performing at the Covent Garden Piazza in London

“So you thought you could not do it but then started doing it?”

“There was a guy who dragged me into it because he wanted to do it. He was like a dancer and acrobat. So we put this terrible show together, did it for about three shows and then he fucked off. But, by then, I had my street performer’s licence.

“We did go to Paris and see this man called Bananaman, who was this mad bloke who collected junk and then played music with it outside the Pompidou Centre. It was all in French. And then he hit this real banana and smashed it and everyone just thought he was mad. Apparently he was seen in Paris as the world’s worst street performer, but I thought: Wow! That’s alternative!”

Mike has learned to conduct himself well in performance

“What did he hit the banana with?”

“A stick. To me it was an act of Dada.

“I thought it was brilliant. So we went back to Covent Garden and decided we were going to create a police car out of rubbish. We got all this rubbish and two half-arsed costumes together and the idea was it would look terrible. Other street performers came up to us and said: Right, here’s a bit of advice – Get yourself some proper costumes because, frankly, it just looks like rubbish at the moment. And we said: No! That’s the POINT!

“The word anarchy,” I said, “might put some people off. But, if you say Dada, it sounds arty and acceptable and respectable. What does Dada mean?”

“Meaningless… I suppose I like it when you take it to the max, If you are truly going to be Dada, I suppose you have to be anti-everything. Anti-script. Anti-comedy. Anti-anti-comedy.”

His autobiography – Hitting The Cobbles

“Being a street performer, though,” I suggested, “is quite disciplined. You have to be half performer and half barrowboy/street market trader. You have to grab the punters’ attention at  the start and tout for money at the end, with a performance bunged in the middle. So, in theory, you could transfer the actual performance indoors if you remove the ‘selling’ element.”

“I would agree with that.”

“Except that the selling,” I said, “is an integral part of the street performance.”

“Well,” replied Mike, “they say you ‘sell’ a joke and I’m very aware of how I am going to set up any part of the performance. I am quite analytical about selling the material. I don’t know if it’s my inbuilt insecurity as a performer, but I so see myself as a writer. I think: This has got to work on paper or it won’t work in performance. That’s probably not the case, but it’s how I see it. I write everything down, even if it is just: We will be improvising at this point. It’s some weird fear.”

“So you are not a Dadaist really,” I said, “because you want everything written-down and organised in advance.”

“No, I don’t think I’m a Dadaist.”

“An absurdist?” I asked.

“I don’t know. To me, if it’s funny, it’s funny. I remember years ago I was called a post-modernist street performer. I didn’t quite know what it meant.”

“That’s it, then,” I said. We’re done. Where are you going now?”

“I’m going to a museum. It’s putting on a Dada cabaret… All I want is a bicycle hooked up to a whoopee cushion and, when people ride fast enough, it makes the whoopee cushion fart. That’s all I want.”

But what about his name – Mike Raffone?

Is it his stage name or his real name?

Say it out loud.

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Waiting for Guido with aerial artist Avi

Becky Fury, Geoff Steel and Johnathan Richardson are Waiting For Guido at the Cockpit Theatre

On Monday night, Malcolm Hardee Award winner Becky Fury is presenting a show called Waiting For Guido at the Cockpit Theatre in London. It is billed as:

“Fusing comic improvisation from world class performers, a little sprinkling of circus performance and an improvised musical score. This is Jesus and the Easter bunny waiting for the return of the enigmatic and insurrectionary battery chicken, Guido. In a basic story structure inspired by Waiting for Godot, Dada and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, we present an evening of entertainment, theatrical innovation and carefully curated chaos.”

Johnathan Richardson, Becky Fury, Geoff Steel in rehearsal

As well as comics Trevor Lock, Johnathan Richardson, Geoff Steel and Becky, there is music by a house band featuring Bang Crosby and aerial acts from “contortionist and rope and hoop expert” Avital Hannah.

Aerial acts? I thought. Aerial acts? So I went to the National Centre for Circus Arts in London to see Becky and Avital talk through and swing through what might be happening on Monday.


JOHN: So what is Waiting For Guido?

BECKY: It’s basically a cabaret show with some theatrical comedy vignettes. A contemporary freakshow inspired by Principa Discordia and the Dogme manifesto. This one’s more Catme but I always have to be so extra. Everything’s not so much falling into place but descending in beautiful yet bizarre shapes and landing elegantly in place.

JOHN: What’s the narrative?

BECKY: Waiting.

JOHN: What is Avi doing? Just hanging around?

AVI: Hanging from the rafters.

BECKY: She will be mirroring some of the characters in the show. Everyone has a character. It’s a hybrid cabaret comedy circus show.

Avi at the National Centre for Circus Arts

JOHN: Why did you decide being an aerial artist was a good career choice?

AVI: I kind of decided on a whim… I had gone to college to study law, psychology, philosophy and critical thinking. I thought: There’s a future for me as an aerial artist because I’m highly-strung and not very good at letting go. And I thought: If I go to circus school then I can do what I want but I still get a qualification.

JOHN: Did the glamour of circus attract you?

AVI: No.

JOHN: So what was the attraction?

AVI: The ownership of my own body.

JOHN: Define that.

AVI: It was really positive for reclaiming my body as a woman. I had often felt it was ‘owned’ by other people. I’m definitely in control of it now. It will always be more useful to me than anyone else. Before circus, that had not necessarily always been apparent.

JOHN: ‘Being in control of your own body’ sounds like it might overlap into hatred of men.

AVI: Well, to some extent I think it’s a feminist answer but I think it’s just as a human I have my right to own my own body and this has enabled me to do so.

JOHN: Where is the career in being an aerial artist outside a circus? You can’t play the upstairs room of a suburban pub.

Waiting For Guido in rehearsal

AVI: No, but there’s corporate gigs, the corporate circuit at Christmas time, charity gigs, Council things and it’s more integrated into theatre and dance than it used to be. There are circus shows in the West End. There’s TV and film stuff. It’s quite broad; you’ve just gotta know where to look.

JOHN: Corporate gigs?

AVI: Making posh people’s parties look cooler. If you can get someone to hang off the ceiling, it looks good.

JOHN: Is there a career path?

AVI: I’m interested in the production side. I’m really interested in production management and directing, producing.

JOHN: How do you two know each other?

BECKY: From festivals. The DIY culture. The Unfairground stage at the Glastonbury Festival.

JOHN: There is a lot of twirling involved in what you do.

AVI: I find it easier to learn things on the left. It’s generally easier to rotate one way. I generally spin to the right but there are certain tricks that require me to spin to the left and that’s fine; it’s just a different type of training.

JOHN: Is that something to do with the left side of your brain controlling the right side of the body and vice versa?

AVI: I don’t know, but there are certain things you can do to make them talk to each other a bit better.

JOHN: Such as?”

Becky shoots Avi at the National Centre for Circus Arts

AVI: Stand up and stand on one leg with your eyes closed and then try standing on the other leg. You will be better doing it on one side than the other. Then open your eyes and bring your thumb towards them until it’s uncomfortable to see it and do that three times. Keep your thumb really steady while doing it. Then try standing on one leg again. It should be way more even between left and right. It tricks your brain somehow.

BECKY: It must realign everything into a balance because you have to focus on the thumb straight-on rather than left and right sides and one of your eyes being lazy.

AVI: I don’t know. It seems to work.

JOHN: Have you got public liability insurance if you fall on someone?

AVI: Only if I’m performing. Not in normal life.

BECKY: Everyone should have it. A friend of mine was performing at a Secret Policeman’s Ball show. He threw rice during the show and someone slipped on a grain of rice in their stiletto shoe and broke their ankle. Luckily he had public liability insurance, because they sued him.

JOHN: Why are your powdering your ear?

AVI: I always put make-up on my ear lobes before a show. You don’t want red ears when you go upside down. Blood goes to them when you are upside down.

JOHN: Ah… Why are you in Becky’s show? It’s basically a comedy show.

AVI: It’s different. I wanna see what happens.

JOHN: Yes indeed.

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Filed under circus, Comedy, Surreal, Theatre

OH YES IT IS ! – Matt Roper + the first pantomime in New York for 100 years

(L-R) Jenni Gil as Jack, Michael Lynch as Dame Delancey, and Matt Roper as Silly Simon. (Photograph by Don Spiro)

“So,” I said to British performer Matt Roper in New York, “Have you ever done a pantomime before?”

We were speaking via FaceTime, obviously.

“Years ago,” he told me, “as a 20-year-old I was in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal, St Helens, with ‘Olive’ from On The Buses. Anna Karen. She was great! What a woman! She was a Soho stripper in the 1960s in London. She was deported from South Africa in the Apartheid years. She was a puppeteer at a theatre in Johannesburg and gave a private puppet show to a bunch of black kids and she was deported.”

“And now,” I said, you’re in Jack and The Beanstalk – New York’s first panto for 100 years,”

“Yes. The first major panto for over a century.”

“How did you get involved?” I asked. “You were just an Englishman in New York?”

Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser (Photograph: Laura Vogel)

Mat Fraser lives in New York now and he wrote it with his wife Julie Atlas Muz. She’s a Ukrainian American. Mat’s English, as you know, and his parents were performers, so he grew up watching a lot of pantos.”

“Julie Atlas Muz,” I said, “is a ‘feminist burlesque star’?”

“Yes,” said Matt.

“OK,” I said.

“Mat and Julie have a long relationship with this theatre – the Abrons Arts Centre,” said Matt. “The last thing they presented here was an adults-only version of Beauty & The Beast – she was Beauty and he was The Beast. Very explicit. Very adults-only. But this time, with the panto, it’s completely 100% family-friendly.”

“The whole concept of panto,” I suggested, “must be next-to-impossible to understand if you haven’t grown up with it.”

“Someone is going to go out right at the top of the show,” explained Matt, “doing a whole warm-up routine, explaining the rules to the kids.”

“Someone?” I asked.

Dirty Martini plays the Good Fairy and Hawthorn Albatross III is – Boo! – villainous Dastardly Dick. (Photo by Don Spiro)

“Me,” said Matt. “I think it will work, because New York audiences are not very quiet audiences. I imagine it will be like an audience full of Scousers – you can’t keep ‘em quiet. There is a villain in the show – Dastardly Dick – so I will tell the kids: Every time you see him, you have to hiss and boo!

“And,” I said, “of course, you have to explain things like Behind you! Panto is just weird. The whole format – Things like the principal boy is played by a girl and the motherly dame is a middle-aged man. Who are you?”

“I’m the comic. I am Jack’s brother, Silly Simon. And Jack is an actress called Jenni Gil. She’s from the Lower East Side, from the projects. It has been adapted for a New York audience. So I think that will help. It’s set in the Lower East Side – in a lost village called StoneyBroke.”

“What about the accent differences? Or are you playing with an American accent?”

“It is set up that we had different fathers. In the story, both my brother – Jack – and my mother are people of colour – African American. It’s a really diverse cast; very New York. Our ‘mother’ is Michael Johnnie Lynch, a big, black, brassy drag queen from the Bronx. Honestly, we couldn’t have wished for a better dame.”

“Surely,” I said, “the dame has to be a male-looking man in a dress as opposed to a drag queen?”

“Michael just nails it in some way,” said Matt. “He’s brilliant.”

“Is he a feminine drag queen, though?” I asked. “You can’t be too feminine as the dame. You have to be knowingly masculine.”

(L-R): Julie Atlas Muz, Jenni Gil, Matt Roper, Michael Lynch in rehearsal in New York (Photograph by Dirty Martini)

“He’s feminine but not in a Danny La Rue type of way,” Matt explained. Occasionally he goes into a deep, husky voice… And we have Dirty Martini as the Good Fairy – a plus-size burlesque legend. She’s done great things for body positivity.”

“Any Trump parallels in the script?” I asked.

“The giant is Giant Rump and he lives up in the clouds.”

“Is the Giant a large actor or do you just have giant feet in the background?”

“All the puppets… there are quite a lot of animals in the show… There is Daisy the Cow, obviously, because Jack has to sell the cow to get the magic beans. There’s the goose and there’s the giant. And they’ve all been designed by a guy called Basil Twist, who has been nominated for Tony Awards on Broadway shows.”

“You don’t have a pantomime cow with two men inside?”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course. There’s actors inside the cow. Of course.”

“You have,” I told him, “done very well over there. How long have you been in New York now? Two years?”

“Just over. It’s tough. Health insurance and all that stuff. No-one gives a shit what you’ve done in the UK; you have to start at the bottom.”

“Certainly if you are the cow,” I said. “But you landed on your feet off-Broadway, playing Chico in the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers revue I’ll Say She Is.”

Top Marx (L-R) Seth Sheldon, Matt Roper, Noah Diamond.

“Yes,” Matt agreed. “The New Yorker said: Matt Roper catches Chico Marx’s unearned belligerence.”

“A Brit pretending to be an Italian-American…” I said.

“Well,” Matt reminded me, “of course, he wasn’t. He was a Jewish guy from the Upper East Side in New York. As a kid, because there were lots of Italian gangs and he was Jewish, he pretended to be Italian to protect himself from getting beaten up.”

“And then,” I said, “you went into that early American play.”

“We just closed it last month,” said Matt. “Androboros: Villain of the State. The earliest-known play published in what is now the US. Based on an investment scandal that happened in the 1700s in the British colony of New York.”

“And you were…”

Matt as Androboros: Villain of the State

“Androboros.”

“What was the appeal to a 2017 audience?”

“They put it on because there were many parallels between Androboros and Trump.”

“So you are surviving,” I said.

Yes,” said Matt. “And I write a column each week for Gorilla Art House, it’s a subsidiary of Lush UK, the ethical cosmetics company. And I have a voice-over agent here in New York.”

“And a residency at The Slipper Room,” I said. “What is the Slipper Room?”

“It’s a burlesque house. They market it as ‘a house of varieties’ – It’s like a new vaudeville.”

“Is it the whole caboodle?” I asked. “Singers, dancers, comedy…”

“And we have sideshows and a little bit of magic and it’s all rigged-up so we can have aerial acts.”

“What does ‘sideshow’ mean in this context?” I asked.

Wondrous Wilfredo performs at The Slipper Room

“People who stick piercings through their eyes and stuff like that. Stuff that makes your stomach turn.”

“And you…?” I asked.

“I open the show sometimes as my character Wilfredo… Wilfredo is more-or-less confined to the Slipper Room, which pleases me.”

“Are you ever ‘Matt Roper’ in the Slipper Room?”

“Yeah. We have in-house shows and some out-of-house guest shows who hire the theatre and I’ve done comedy sketches and stuff like that.”

“There is a man in a gimp mask on your Facebook page…”

Matt Roper (left) and Peaches, who lives underneath the stage

“That’s Peaches, the Slipper Room gimp.”

“The Slipper Room has a resident gimp?”

“He lives underneath the stage and, now-and-then, comes out and performs.”

“Nothing surprises me,” I said.

Jack and The Beanstalk opens at the Abrons Arts Center in New York on Sunday. Previews started yesterday.

“Break a leg on Sunday,” I said to Matt, when we had finished chatting.

“Don’t say that,” he told me. “On the opening night of the Marx Brothers musical, the guy playing the dowager’s butler actually broke his leg. So no broken legs. Especially with the cost of healthcare in this country.”

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Heckling a serious play = comic success

The tower of Westminster Cathedral in Victoria, London

Last Friday, with my eternally-un-named friend, I stumbled on the funeral service of a 101-year-old Monsignor in Westminster Cathedral, London’s Catholic Cathedral (not to be confused with the Protestant Westminster Abbey).

I was brought up a Presbyterian – very low church – just occasional hymns, an organ and a bloke standing talking in a pulpit amid undecorated walls.

So the full-whack OTT pomp and theatricality of a Catholic funeral of a Monsignor in Westminster Cathedral was like watching some Las Vegas floorshow. High church Christianity is a bizarre old religion with undertones of gay cannibalism – all that dressing up in colourful camp costumes and eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ while waving smoke about from an amateur smoke machine.

Nearby, the Victoria Palace Theatre was finishing its multi-million pound refurbishment. It will have trouble out-camping the Cathedral.

Anyway, I am currently ill in bed (possibly minor ‘man flu’) and, in between sleeps, randomly surf.

I stumbled on this Wikipedia entry for the Victoria Palace Theatre:


Victoria Palace Theatre, London, today

In 1934, the theatre presented Young England, a patriotic play written by the Rev. Walter Reynolds, then 83. It received such amusingly bad reviews that it became a cult hit and played to full houses for 278 performances before transferring to two other West End theatres. 

Intended by its author as a serious work celebrating the triumph of good over evil and the virtues of the Boy Scout Movement, it was received as an uproarious comedy. Before long, audiences had learned the key lines and were joining in at all the choicest moments. The scoutmistress rarely said the line “I must go and attend to my girls’ water” without at least fifty voices in good-humoured support.


This whetted my appetite and I found that, at some early performances, the Rev. Walter Reynolds would reportedly walk up and down the aisles of the theatre during performances telling people to be quiet. He soon changed his tune.

The actors (who otherwise played their roles straight) eventually made a game of ad-libbing if the crowd beat them to their lines. On one occasion the villain, when led away by the police, paused before saying “Foiled!” and the crowd shouted not only “Foiled!” but “Baffled!” “Beaten!” “Frustrated!” “Outwitted!” “Trapped!” “Flummoxed!” He waited until they were through, then hissed: “Stymied!”

Over a quarter of a million people saw the play.

Elaine Haddelsey of the Jot 101 website has done sterling research on the play and even found one of the theatre’s printed programmes, which has an introduction written by the esteemed Rev.Reynolds himself. I have shortened it:


The original theatre programme

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is a drama somewhere in every edition of our newspapers, and I at once confess that I have unblushingly cut out from them practically all the bits and pieces that were suitable for my story to illustrate the ups and downs of the life that you and I and all of us lead every day.

Having assembled these many snippets and scraps of material, I dovetailed them all together, and the result of my stage carpentering is what I am now venturing to present to you.

In Young England I have aimed at providing a solid three hours of clean and wholesome entertainment to put before you a theatrical bill of fare made up of the joys, the sorrows, the tears, the laughter, the sift romances and the hard realities of our work-a-day existence – idealised, of course, because that is what we all like – but, I hope, made interesting.

I have tried to re-introduce to the living stage some of its long-lost virility and its old-time attraction to provide three full hours of movement and action with clearly-to-be-heard words in place of the inaudibilities of our latter-day theatres. Again, what has impelled me to write Young England is the fact that nearly every week the Movie houses provide their millions of patrons with old-fashioned and often very crude melodramas, proving beyond any doubt that drama, even when it may be poor stuff is the sort of fare that theatregoers are always looking for.

In addition I have most respectfully woven into my play, as an extra pleasurable feature, some threads of the material of one of the most beneficent movements that have ever been instituted in the history of mankind, viz., the creation of the picturesque and practical Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movement by the indomitable defender of Mafeking.


In a Spectator piece on 21st December 1934, after its transfer to the Kingsway Theatre, Rupert Hart-Davis wrote:


The Rev Walter Reynolds, serious author

Mn. Reynolds wrote Young England as a deeply serious play, a play with a purpose.

Between the conception and the creation, as Mr. T. S. Eliot has said, falls the shadow. 

In this case the shadow has turned his messages of good will into protestations as richly and unconsciously comical as Bottom’s wooing. Let us not mince matters: Young England is the funniest entertainment now showing in London.

The first act takes place in Wartime, “east of Aldgate pump”. Here there is such a riot of local colour that one has some difficulty in picking out the true blue of the distressed maiden and the white feather of Jabez Hawk, the villain. Jabez deserts the girl, who dies in a convenient Salvation Army shelter, giving birth to a son. A young War-widow takes pity on the infant, adopts him and gives him the simple but telling name of Hope Ravenscroft.

Hope’s betrothal to Lady Mary is a moving scene. “I must be the happiest Scout in England,” he cries; “And I,” echoes his beloved, “must be the happiest Guide.”

The curtain falls on the baronial hall, whose back wall has miraculously changed into Loch Lomond in springtime. Britannia, flanked by Brownies, Wolf Cubs, Scouts, Guides, and the complete company, stands superb against an erratically lowered Union Jack.

All of which may sound entertaining enough on its own account. But what raises it above any other such piece which we have seen recently is the attitude and the co-operation of the audience.

Led by a number of fanatics who have visited the play some twenty or thirty times, the whole body of the house joins continually in the play’s dialogue with quips, running commentary, advice to the characters.

Some of the vocal annotations have become traditional and are repeated at every performance. There is nothing of rowdiness or hooliganism in their attitude. All seem to realize that this unofficial accompaniment is the making of the entertainment. The actors themselves accept it, and it disturbs them not at all.

If this behaviour appears to the reader to be both bewildering and in bad taste, one can only urge an immediate visit to the theatre. The great cyclone of laughter should captivate anybody. As a remedy for the author’s chagrin, one may suggest that to make a theatreful of people lose themselves in laughter during more than a hundred performances may be even more beneficent than the same amount of Boy Scout propaganda.


News of the play’s transfer to the West End and success at the Kingsway Theatre spread to Australia.

On 2nd February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported:


The proud author and some of the unfortunate cast of Young England

In no theatre or cinema or music hall can such uproarious laughter be found.

Mr Reynolds himself generally occupies a box, and he may well suffer agonies over the misrepresentation of his play. But, like the actors and actresses, he accepts the situation, in view of the lucrative consequences. 

Those who have seen Young England come a second time in order to bait the players or to add their own lines. When the errant Scoutmaster is observed to be cracking the Scout’s safe the audience urges him “not to forget to wipe the handle.” When this advice from the stalls is accepted by the villain and he carefully wipes his finger-tips the cheers are terrific.

At another juncture the villain mentions that when he was elected to Parliament the shares in certain companies in which he was interested went up.

“And up, and up, and up, and up,” roars the audience.

Not to be denied a retort, the villain generally interjects, “Well, that’s pretty unanimous,” directing his remark at the shouting stalls.

At another juncture the stage directions indicate that a duchess is calling up someone on the telephone. “Don’t keep the duchess waiting,” shouts the audience. The actor is purposely slow. He reaches the ‘phone amid cries of “Duchess! Duchess! Don’t you know the duchess is on the line?”


Five years later, in the US in December 1939, Time magazine reported:


The opening scenes of the full Young England experience

Shortly after World War II began, it was decided to revive the play. There were some fears that it might have ad-libbed its usefulness, that jesting at patriotism might not go down in wartime. The fears were groundless. With tension in the air, people have been gladder than ever to relax, and with soldiers in the audience, the wisecracks are even rawer than they used to be.

– One set shows a Salvation Army ‘citadel’ with doors marked MEN and WOMEN. Every time an actor starts for one, the crowd shouts: “Wrong door, wrong door.”

– When Boy Scouts or Girl Guides are assigned to “water detail”, voices pipe up: “Stay out of those bushes”; “Be careful of the side of the barn.”

– One night, when the hero was proved not to be illegitimate, someone yelled: “Consider yourself unbastardized.”

Walter Reynolds, Young England‘s 88-year-old author, still takes his dead-serious play seriously. He went to the opening of the revival, a sad, reedy figure in a great black cape, doddered up the stairs to his box holding on to both handrails, sat tense through the uproar, at the end bowed to the audience, thanked them. 

Asked in a BBC interview whether he wasn’t angry at the way audiences treated Young England, he answered:

“No. They’re a little noisy… but they pay as much as 10 pounds and 6 shillings for seats, so they must like it.”

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Edinburgh Fringe Day 7: Three naked bottoms, tears and a cunning stunt

Today, I watched three performers talking out of their arses. Hardly a new thing at the Edinburgh Fringe, you might think.

I couldn’t possibly be cheap enough to use a pun

Except this was the much-touted Wild Bore comic theatrical piece at The Traverse in which Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott perform with their naked bottoms (and occasionally with the rest of their bodies).

It is a knowingly self-referential post-modernist labyrinth of analysing and criticising critics and the performance itself with some wonderful surreal images – the sight of them running around naked and erect with their heads inside their own bottoms made me glad I never remember my own dreams and nightmares.

The self-referencing reminded me inevitably of that 1969 movie I am always banging on about in this blog – Anthony Newley’s Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? – You sit there thinking the movie is a self-indulgent mess and then, at one point, three ‘movie critics’ walk on the screen and start criticising it in detail for all the many faults you have just been thinking about. I sat through it twice when I first saw it, because I had no idea whether I liked it or not. I was still not sure after seeing it twice, but it was and is certainly addictive.

Nathan Willcock’s State of The Nathan at Moriarty’s also kept referring to itself and had a strangely straight, middle-of-the-road, middle-aged, non-Fringe audience happily sitting through and enjoying an hour of his (as he admitted to them) liberal Londoner comedy.

Daddy Kamali – indefatigably charismatic

The indefatigably charismatic Jody Kamali was pretending to run a hotel – Hotel Yes Please – in a room in the actual Apex Hotel/Sweet venue in Grassmarket where he played multiple characters, integrated the audience into the show and unusually-for-him added some genuine personal stuff into a character playing another character. Apparently last year’s Fringe show was such a happy experience that, on the final night, he celebrated with his wife and the result is that he now has a daughter.

I think he will make a good dad.

Which was something Lewis Schaffer’s dead mother told him (Lewis) in one of the 23 letters he is opening nightly in Unopened Letters From My Mother at the Counting House. As he said in this blog two days ago: “To me, the letters are full-on scary and sad. But funny for the audience.”

Lewis Schaffer reads his mother’s letter for the first time

He says he does not know why he did not open the 23 letters she sent him between 2000 and her death in 2011, some from a mental hospital.

But I do remember the late Malcolm Hardee, going through a bout of depression the like of which people would not imagine Malcolm Hardee had, telling me that he was only opening one in three of the letters he received through the post. The other two he threw away without even checking who they were from.

After tonight’s performance – well, performance is the wrong word – experience – someone said to me: “I have never seen Lewis show that sort of real emotion on stage before”.

Lewis’ shows are always one-offs. These ones almost go beyond unique, if such a thing were possible.

Which could also be said of Becky Fury’s show tonight at the Black Market. Well, she did not actually perform her prepared show but improvised 55 minutes around the audience which included a Polish social worker who came to Edinburgh for the Fringe last year and just stayed. He said he was attracted to her show title Molotov Cocktail Party because of what happened at Polish football matches.

Becky Fury – not hosting a Christian show at all

Then there was the young Spanish couple who were there despite, it seemed, not actually being able to understand any English. Becky at first persuaded them it was a Christian show in which everyone had to bare themselves and managed to get the male half of the couple to strip off.

And then there was the American girl who arrived late. She said she played the violin and sewed.

“Simultaneously?” asked Becky.

Alas no, but she then took out her sewing and continued throughout the rest of the show while listening and participating. She said she was not a performer but did busk naked in Seattle, playing the violin.

I do believe this was and is true. But who knows?

In this blog four days ago, Martha McBrier mentioned that she had received a complaint about the fact that she plays a didgeridoo during her Balamory Doubtfire show – something that women are not allowed to do in Aboriginal culture. A white sociology professor in New York had accused her of racism, sexism and subjugating an entire culture.

The story was followed up, with more details, in Bruce Dessau’s Beyond The Joke site, on the Chortle comedy site and  in The Scotsman.

Chortle carried quotes from Janet McLeod, producer of the Melbourne Comedy Festival show Aborigi-LOL, and Dane Simpson, a comedian from the Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay culture.

Martha McBrier – cunning player of religious instruments

Tonight, I got a message from Martin Walker, who told me that, during the recording of his On The Mic podcast, Martha had admitted that the whole thing was a cunning stunt.

The didgeridoo appears on her flyer/poster and makes an admittedly brief appearance in her show so I do wonder if this is a stunt planned so far in advance that it is almost a work of art in its own right.

On the other hand, allegedly offending Aboriginal didgeridoo players might not have been a stunt at all but, on seeing the reaction, Martha decided to say it was a stunt to fan the flames of publicity and edge ever closer to a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt nomination.

Only time will tell.

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Edinburgh Fringe Day 2: Good advice on dodgy comedy stage show directors

In this blog yesterday, a comedy performer whom I did not name was complaining about the way they had been treated by their director who had just said their show being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe could be directed from London without the director coming up to Edinburgh at all. 

I know a few theatre directors and got this response from the highly-experienced and much admired Catherine Arden (who is NOT the director in question). In other words, this is good advice…


Advice from Catherine Arden, director

I was concerned to read about the performer whose director did not support him or her to bed in the show for the opening week in Edinburgh.

I served two 2-year terms on the Equity Theatre Directors’ Committee and recently attended a conference where this type of thing was discussed and strongly disapproved of. It gives professional directors a bad name and is not good for the industry!

Some suggestions for the performer:

–  If both the performer and director are Equity members, Equity can help resolve and give assistance to the performer to make contracts clearer in future.

–  There is a Fringe contract the performer might want to look at.

–  If the director is an Equity member, the performer can report this poor behaviour to Equity.

–  If the performer is an Equity member, then he or she can get further guidance on the matter and learn how to safeguard future dealings.

If neither the performer nor director are Equity members, I recommend the performer goes along to the Equity desk in Edinburgh.

Equity is running workshops at the Edinburgh Fringe which are great for professional development as well as for networking with proper professionals.

Also, Equity says…

If you are a member or student member taking part in any of the Edinburgh Festivals and need advice or support at any point please contact our local office on 0141-248-8472 or scotland@equity.org.uk

The Fringe has its Venues and Companies team for any show or venue taking part in the festival and they may also be able to help: participants@edfringe.com

Failing all that, your performer can get in touch with me as a director with Fringe experience if she wants a director who will give her the support he or she needs – and deserves! 🙂

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