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Watermill - The Last Days of the Empire

23rd July to 30th August 2003.

From The Times.

Two stars
Alan Plater is a fine dramatist and a hugely successful screenwriter, so word of his new play naturally made me put on my skates and speed off to Berkshire. Well, since I went by rail, not exactly speed. The train was like John Doyle’s production of The Last Days of the Empire, which had a stuttering feel and seemed badly in need of electrification. Given the cast’s disconnected way with cues, and its failure to fill the gaps with interesting emotion, I’d recommend more rehearsal.

The play itself, which is set in 1957, seems indebted to John Osborne’s Entertainer, which appeared the same year and also drew parallels between a decaying music hall and a pessimistic, self-deceiving nation. A band called Pedro Gonzales and his Caribbean Rhythm, whose members range from a Yorkshireman to a Scot, are in the smelly old dressing room of the pointedly named Empire, which is about to be converted into yet another bingo hall. Oliver Judge’s Spike is young, callow and trying to avoid National Service, Jim Bywater’s Les is an ageing, embittered Marxist. Not even Heather Panton’s Jeannie, who came from Glasgow three weeks ago with hope in her heart, looks forward to their impending performance with much more than weary cynicism.

The mood and the play’s pace lift with the arrival of Darren Saul’s buoyant, smiling Joe, who actually comes from the Caribbean and, despite his misgivings over the ersatz nonsense around him, has some faith in the power of music. But nothing as decided and definite as dramatic conflict ensues. Instead, there’s a lot of statement and restatement of attitudes: “We do not love what we are doing”, that sort of thing. And the ending leaves us as much in limbo as it does the bandmaster, Mike (played by Paul Greenwood), who doesn’t know whether to end his faltering career by launching a television quiz show or opening a boarding house in Yarmouth.

There are some funny, Plateresque lines — someone opens a battered piano to find a note reading “this needs tuning, yours sincerely, W. A. Mozart” — and plenty of evidence of nostalgia for a time when groups with names such as Felix Mendelssohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders performed alongside the Nitwits and men doing “clever routines with a stuffed kangaroo and a teapot”.

John Dankworth is responsible for the music, and presumably for Gonzales’s trademark calypso, an ode to the Queen’s Coronation that is meant to be passé and absurd but turns out to be good, tuneful fun. But then the evening is like that: unsure of itself.

BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE

From The Daily Telegraph.

Echoes from the end of an era

It never ceases to amaze me how often the death of variety can be rediscovered. Only the other day, I heard a programme on Radio 4 excitedly relaying the various attempts at self-reinvention made by the Sunderland Empire, as though the curtain had just recently fallen on the music-hall and revue acts that once graced its stage.

Last year, Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell attempted to capture vaudevillian life north of the border in Variety with little joy. And now Alan Plater has penned a requiem comedy, set circa 1955, backstage at a typical provincial "Empire", in which the end of an entertainment era is given a two-act salute.

It seems to be a part of our theatrical heritage we love to revisit, stunned and misty-eyed at its absence, even though it was far too little loved to survive the onslaught of television. The problem any play commemorating variety's vanishing act has to contend with is: how do you pay homage to something on its last miserable legs and looking decidedly peaky? John Osborne, who pipped everyone to the post with The Entertainer (1957), managed to harness his tribute to a tirade: Archie Rice's fast-fading routines were emblematic of a country in decline, all the old certainties gone.

Plater, though he establishes a similar historical connection, has none of Osborne's anger and looks back in nostalgia. As a result, The Last Days of the Empire has a tentative, partial quality, caught between mockery and mourning, dithering without moving in any clear dramatic direction.

The writer has a wonderful ear for droll conversation, nonetheless, and his dressing-room badinage is wonderfully served by John Doyle's cast, suitably cramped on to the Watermill's tiny stage. Offering only bearable snatches of the act that "Pedro Gonzales and his Caribbean Rhythm" inflict on a dwindling supply of pensioners and nurses, including a frightful "Coronation Calypso", the band, drawn from distinctly untropical parts of Britain, idle away the time contemplating a grim future.

They know the game's up: to compound the woes of a leaking roof, and a changing area that stinks of fish - thanks to last week's incumbents, Horatio Nelson and His Performing Seals - they've learnt that the two Janacek Sisters, upon whom their "Nudes of the World" revue depends for titillating effect, have just done a runner with the Brillcreamed singer, Simon. The last-minute replacement turns out to be a genuine Jamaican - Darren Saul's Joe, a courteous charmer with a smile bright enough to cut through the fog of despondency and lurking prejudice.

Though Plater doesn't build to a big idea - indeed, he undercuts the promise of change that Joe embodies with a gallingly elegiac account of Auld Lang Syne - there's too much to enjoy for one to dismiss his snapshot, with all its unearned sentimentality, out of hand.

Jim Bywater and Oliver Judge make a fantastic unofficial double act as the sour double-bassist Les and the lippy drummer Spike, while Susan Jane Tanner and Paul Greenwood, as the company's husband-and-wife duo, are pleasurably reminiscent of the snobbish dance instructors Barry and Yvonne from Hi-de-Hi! A fate no better than a holiday camp is all that this motley crew can expect.

DOMINIC CAVENDISH

From The Guardian.

Three stars
Alan Plater is not the first dramatist to spot a parallel between the disintegration of twice-nightly variety and the British empire. But, while his beguiling new play does not match the mesmerising rhetoric of John Osborne's The Entertainer, it is far better plotted and just as socially accurate.

The play is set in a shabby dressing room in an ailing provincial theatre in 1957. There is a pervasive smell of fish, because the recent occupants were Admiral Nelson and his performing seals. But the current residents, the all-white Pedro Gonzales and his Caribbean Rhythm, are put off by something more than the pong. Comprising a veteran show-business couple, an embittered leftie, a column-dodging percussionist and a young Glaswegian pianist, they are in crisis because the lead vocalist has absconded with a pair of nude contortionists. What gives them a shock, however, is when the replacement turns out to be a real Jamaican.

The perfect format allows Plater to link the cynicism of dwindling variety theatre with that of 1950s Britain. The couple's adoption of calypso songs, and even the token blacking-up by their musicians, says a lot about British attitudes to race and the supposed exoticism of other cultures.

Television is also rightly seen as a potent threat and a commercial opportunity. While the displaced veterans dream up a grisly panel game called Spot the Wife, the disillusioned double-bass player wanly remarks that "we have to face the fact that television has replaced entertainment".

The one weak point in Plater's linking of variety and society is that the death of music hall was sad, while the loss of empire was inevitable and beneficial. But, through Jamaican Joe, who has adroitly turned himself from bus conductor into skilled performer, Plater suggests a country on the cusp of profound change. John Dankworth's music captures beautifully the odd mix of nostalgia, patriotism and cultural appropriation that characterised the period. And John Doyle's lively production contains spot-on performances from Paul Greenwood and Susan Jane Tanner as the frayed variety veterans, Jim Bywater as a wartime radical shrouded in despair and Darren Saul as the invincibly optimistic Jamaican. It's a highly enjoyable, richly ambivalent play that loves the world it mocks.

MICHAEL BILLINGTON

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Plater's variety spices life at the Watermill

The Last Days of the Empire, at the Watermill, until August 30

Alan Plater's play, written for the Watermill, takes place at a time when pink was a predominant colour on the school atlases of all those young Elizabethans - and Imperial Leather aftershave was bound to get you the girl. The Coronation had a devastating effect on theatre, with television sales rocketing and people staying in their own armchairs to be entertained.

Music hall and the Caribbean Rhythm Band, led by Mike/Pedro Gonzales and Peggy Gorman, (Paul Greenwood and Susan Jane Tanner) are suffering in the general decline. Spoons player Les (Jim Bywater) from Leeds, pianist Jeannie (Heather Panton) from Glasgow, and drummer Spike (Oliver Judge), a Teesside lad, have lost heart, the dingy green room stinks of seals (the last occupants) and several members of the company have left (including the nudes). Into this apathy, as replacement for the lead singer, comes beaming ex-Birmingham bus conductor Jamaican Joe (Darren Saul) sure this is his big break.

When Mike/Pedro tells the company that the next performance will be the last, it seems rock-bottom has arrived. But the British are best in Dunkirk situations and as Jeannie says "we may be rubbish, but at least we're LIVE rubbish" and the resultant Coronation Calypso with all the cast, fiesta-frilled emerald green costumes a-shake, shows why live theatre is best of all.

The whizz-bang dialogue as crafted by Alan Plater means you could listen to it with your eyes closed and still roar with laughter. Combine the words with the cast's excellent timing and such small shining gems as Les' "Bridlington! I spent a week there one Thursday!", not to mention the O God our help in ages past cha-cha-cha. My only reservation is that this glorious torrent of comedy is achieved at the expense of movement resulting in a fairly static first half in spite of superb performances, particularly from Jim Bywater and Susan Jane Tanner.

However, with John Doyle directing, John Dankworth stepping in to write the music hall songs, plus playwright supreme Mr Plater's words, the show has an excellent pedigree. Laughter is guaranteed.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

The Reviews Gate review ("this play is quite dreadful") is at www.reviewsgate.com/print.php?sid=1240.

The Review from The Stage ("the play has nowhere much to go") is now lost.