As Barry Humphries returns to the stage, he recalls the joys of the 16 West End theatres he’s acted in since 1959
Am I Jewish?
That is how we all felt in the audience last night at Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece, Leopoldstadt, at Wyndham’s Theatre.
As you probably know, the play is about a Jewish family in Vienna from 1900 to 1955.
It is also about Tom Stoppard’s discovery of his ancestry. And it’s also about many other things.
But over it all looms our knowledge of that incomparable crime, the Holocaust, which would soon devour Europe.
For me, it was just marvellous to sit in one of my favourite London theatres after nearly two years and see a grown-up play. It was the Real Thing, if I may appropriate a Stoppard title.
Wyndham’s was designed by W G R Sprague, the other theatre architect beside the great Frank Matcham, and it has stood on its corner of Charing Cross Road since 1899. And I have trodden its boards!
With fatuous pride, I record that I have played in 16 West End theatres at one time or another, and next year I am touring the country with a new show, The Man Behind the Mask, which might, I hope, end up at Wyndham’s.
I love a theatre that has never been molested by an acoustic engineer. Brand-new theatres are rarely satisfactory, because architects don’t go to the theatre. They go to movies and watch television. The architect of an expensive new theatre in Australia forgot to install dressing rooms, and another ‘acoustically perfect’ auditorium enabled the cast on stage to hear every word whispered by the audience in the back stalls although their own lines were inaudible beyond the first three rows.
Long before your parents were born, in 1963, I was in a pantomime on stage at Wyndham’s Theatre. It was by the future author of Amadeus, Peter Shaffer. The Merry Roosters Panto was a very good children’s show with great songs by Stanley Myers that I used to sing to my daughters.
The show was directed by the famous faux-Cockney Joan Littlewood, who saw the point of me – she cast me as a mad scientist. My wife was played by Toni Palmer, a stalwart of the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Oh, what a gifted, funny girl was Toni, and she’s still with us!
The panto played only by day, and at night I had another job. Spike Milligan had offered me a leading part in The Bedsitting Room at the Comedy Theatre (now the Pinter), a short sprint across Leicester Square. Thus it was that, two years after arriving in England, I found myself playing in two West End theatres simultaneously!
In those days, I was a favourite of Littlewood’s and she cast me in a new play by Frank Norman, who had written the hit show Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Garrick. The show never went ‘up West’.
Frank was a charming, slightly scary society jailbird. Joan loved villains and I would sometimes be invited to parties in terra incognita – remote places such as Walthamstow – and mingle with the Kray Brothers and their always affable colleagues.
At this time, my East End cronies recommended a tailor in Rupert Street, Soho, and I would sometimes climb the insalubrious stairs for a fitting, and bump into the Krays in their new, shiny, mohair finery.
Barbara Windsor was often about, and Danny Sewell, whom I knew from my days in Oliver!. He’d played the original Bill Sikes and his passport said he was a ‘florist’. They were all florists, and most of them had a razor cut on the cheek, which wasn’t due to a shaving accident.
Another villain I knew was the doorman at a strip club in Denman Street, Soho. I was playing Fagin in the 1968 revival of Oliver! at the Piccadilly Theatre, and the subterranean club was next door. Terry (they were all Terrys or Dannys) would stand outside the entrance in all weathers, and well into the small hours, accosting the furtive punters and muttering a few words descriptive of the delights awaiting them.
On my way to and from the theatre, we always exchanged a friendly greeting, until one night he asked me, very politely, how I was doing for money. Fearing ‘the bite’, I told him I was skint. It was four days before the ‘ghost walked’ (theatre slang for pay night) and I was in fact broke.
Looking slyly to left and right and coming so close to me I could smell his last lager and his current Gold Flake fag, he pressed a rosette of damp paper into my hand. ‘Pay me back whenever, Baz,’ he said resuming his vigil. I looked down gratefully at the crumpled £10 note, still damp from a hostess’s Babycham.
Not long after I had returned this unexpected advance on my salary, he asked me if anyone was giving me ‘the needle’.
Totally taken aback, I confessed that there was nobody I could recall.
Pinching the cigarette butt from his lips and with a menacing shrug inside his camelhair shoulder pads, a gesture of which Frank Norman was the master, he said, ‘Just let me know, Baz. Car doors can open real sudden. With me?’
I was almost with him – but in recent years I have wished Terry were still alive. There were a few pedestrians I knew who were very deserving of a sharply opened car door, or of an even more chastening rebuke. They are heavily disguised yet immediately recognisable characters in my soon to be published book, You Pissed in My Soup – mostly lawyers, managers and tax advisers, whom Terry could have cheerfully ‘sorted’.
My first theatre job in London was in 1959 at the Lyric Hammersmith. I was Jonas Fogg the madhouse keeper (who else?) in Donald Cotton and Brian Burke’s The Demon Barber. It was quite an elaborate little musical about Sweeney Todd which Stephen Sondheim had never heard of. Sondheim didn’t know of this version when he composed the 1979 musical/opera Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
It closed on Christmas Eve after 14 performances. Not very long after, this exquisite theatre was demolished at a time when borough councils felt it was their duty to continue the work of Reichsmarschall Goering in the destruction of London. They brought a new ferocity to the task, and many of London’s theatres that had survived the Blitz were gleefully pulverised by the advocates of Progress.
The Lyric was cynically reconstituted, but it was never the same. I remember there was a small doorway just off stage left, in the proscenium arch. From here, a thirsty actor could ascend by a spiral staircase to a secret ‘snug’ in a corner of the dress-circle bar, screened from the intermission audience by a panel of engraved glass. Here you could overhear the comments of the public – not always complimentary.
At another provincial theatre, one time when I was touring with Dame Edna, my dressing room was separated from the female lavatory only by a flimsy partition. So I could overhear the comments of my matinée ladies.
I distinctly remember one woman saying gnomically to another, ‘I think I like her better as a man.’
She may have been right.