Thursday, 28 January 2010
Thirty years of Bedlam
Not much has changed at the Edinburgh University Theatre Company's headquarters since I first stepped inside its deconsecrated auditorium three decades ago this October. There's now a proper box office to the left of the entrance, brightly painted toilets, swisher lighting rig and sound, and the anteroom, plastered with many more posters than when I last saw it, has a cafe serving espresso coffee (no-one in Edinburgh or London, apart from the Italians, seemed to know what espresso was in the early 1980s despite its earlier infiltration).
It touched me, though, of course, to see students doing what students always did, albeit with laptops and mobiles. A drama festival was in full swing; I couldn't stay to see anything as I had to get back to Glasgow for War and Peace, but they were setting up for a play called God's Spies.
I found out to my amazement that the Bedlam turned thirty through the university magazine. And they have a website, too, www.bedlamites.co.uk. Quick flurries of correspondence followed with the friends I made in the first weeks of term and still see: Simon Bell, Mary New (now Amorosino), Jo Dishington (now Clough), Jerry Pratt. It became a heady nostalgiafest and I dug out some old programmes.
Surprising how much I've forgotten about the early days. I slipped in to the freshers' week lunchtime play, Stoppard's Albert's Bridge with one repeated line ('hear, hear, Mr Chairman') and joined the second-week revue, too, along with the Albert, Simon Russell Beale's delightful medic brother Andy. It was terrible. Sorry, David Bannerman, wherever you are - Simon bumped into you recently and you'd been talking about it - but the script of The Brick Programme wasn't funny, and I don't think the bright young sparks in it made it any more so.
I tried to remember the sketches, and only recalled the one where I, as an increasingly irate Weather Forecaster, had a box of soapflakes poured over my unwitting head, making my eyes run and sending me stumbling off into the wings in agony. Could it happen now? Don't know. But the friends united in a common front against the well-meaning director have, in some cases, become so for life through our sharing a flat in second year. Others we still see intermittently, though no sign in person of Adrian Johnston, who swiftly moved into genius mode as accompanist for silent films and has since written countless TV and film scores, getting an Emmy for his work on Amundsen. Might I embarrass him by putting up a picture of us as Mom and Dad, with Matthew Lloyd and Bill Anderson as our 'sons', in a later University Opera production of Weill's Seven Deadly Sins?
Adrian and I used to sit in my room at Pollock Halls listening to Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and he introduced me to Peter Grimes. Among the other rebellious Brick Programmers, the delightfully Greek looking Steph Crean used to keep a notebook in which she'd write down new words we spouted at her; last heard of working for iD magazine. 'Wee' Jenny Turner's a novelist and, still I believe, Guardian books editor.
So the lunchtimes progressed - usually chucked on in a couple of weeks. What else was I in? Mooched about simulating dole queues and other facts of life then unknown to us in Simon Evans's semi-improvised play without words Taking Your Time. Starred as Professor Taranne when Peter Kravitz and Hannah Maude-Roxby couldn't get the intended new play, The Ghost in the Machine, up and running. Directed all my flatmates in Sophocles' Electra (scantily costumed in a Bedlam with no heating one snowy February Wednesday). Played an oleaginous ship's steward in MacNeice's The Dark Tower.
But the highlight, in a Bridesheady way, for all of us, I think, was the late spring fortnight we spent on the annual musical, Cabaret. Wait for it, I have some photos (and a few more sent by Mair) to prove it. Our Mary, a vicar's daughter with the most infectious laugh ever, was born to play Sally Bowles. One night her holy parents - no, they have a sense of humour - were there, sitting at one of the Adnam's beer barrels in the converted auditorium, to hear her deliver 'Don't tell Mamma'.
Simon was Clifford Bradshaw, entertaining us ever after with parody renditions of that corny juve-lead song 'Why should I wake up?' He was also a splendid Orsino and played quite a few parts in an ambitious Caucasian Chalk Circle. I always thought he could have been a professional actor, ditto flautist (he played The Rite of Spring in the NYO under both Boulez and Rattle), but his ex-actress girlfriend Patricia thinks not.
One who did make it to a high level - and we always thought he would - was Peter Forbes, Herr Schultz and since seen as Malvolio at the Globe and Max Reinhardt's business manager Rudolf "Katie" Kommer in Michael Frayn's sorely underrated Afterlife at the National, among other roles. His Fraulein Schneider, Kerry Richardson, made us weep at every rehearsal and performance with 'What would you do?' That, I think, was star quality. Last saw her presenting an angling programme on TV.
Jerry Pratt played the principal Nazi. He was very nearly beaten up in the street when he had to go round the outside of the theatre to make an entrance wearing a swastika armband; John Stalker, director and now doyen of Scottish theatre, had to bring his considerable presence to bear. And I? I was a humble waiter, spinning trays, messing up the dance sequences with my two left feet and joining with Andy Beale in 'Tomorrow belongs to me' (originally set, of course, in the cabaret).
Actually I think I look surprisingly butch in the middle of the dress-rehearsal melee (please note that some of the ladies, including Gabrielle and Zoe if I remember their names aright, aren't wearing their proper costumes). Despite the slicking, though, the coiffure needed attention and immediately afterwards, in time for the first night, I got my crash helmet hair cut short. I also smoked two cigarettes a day for a couple of weeks only and bought a pair of raspberry coloured corduroys - pace, McCall Smith - as a sign of delayed adolescent rebellion. Though coming out was not on the cards in those days, alas. Happy birthday, Bedlam - sorry I can't be there on Saturday to share it with you.
Stop press (6/2): This has triggered off an amazing amount of e-correspondence, with many old names joining the list: just like Facebook, I'm told, except with real friends present and erstwhile. Among many photos exchanging hands are several too mortifying to post, including one of Andy as a Hitler youth which could end his distinguished career if taken out of context, but I did think I'd add one more which Mary found, as it completes the Cabaret dramatis personae.
Our dazzling MC was one Leonard Webster. Perhaps because he was one of the few echt Scots in the cast and maybe disliked us braying English, he was rather quiet offstage. Knock me down with a fevver if putting 'Leonard Webster actor' into Google didn't bring up this page on his website. Turns out he went on to play the MC again at the Chester Gateway during a life in rep. Anyway, there he is above in 1981 asking for 'a little understanding...if you could see her through my eyes' with the ubiquitous Andy Beale underneath the ape skin.