Amateurs Take Centre StageDate: 9 January 2012
Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC, was quoted at the weekend as saying that the best production of King Lear he's ever seen was an amateur theatre version. Which means either that we really all have missed something extraordinary, or that Boyd hasn't got out all that much over the past thirty years.
But it set me thinking. We have the most amazing amateur theatre in this country. It has often been shown that am-dram, in fact, is the third favourite British pastime, coming in behind only football and fishing.
I used to belong to an amateur theatre company in Ilford, Essex, a set-up that had boasted in its ranks none other than John Woodvine, John Alderton, Ken Campbell, Liz Robertson, Noel Tovey and -- more remarkable, possibly, than any of these -- a stylish South African curtain-maker called Milton Cats and an outlandish professional chicken-sexer called Tod Hunter; those two were a riot as Ugly Sisters, onstage and off.
The company was run by the son of a Barking brush salesman called James Cooper, who claimed to have been a stage manager for Noel Coward during the war and a dancer on the South Coast shortly afterwards. He launched his company, the Renegades, in Ilford Town Hall in 1947, with Hamlet, and the production was reviewed by Alan Dent, no less, of the News Chronicle.
"Jock" Dent, a canny Scots critic who was a close friend and associate of the dominant critic of the day, James Agate, had that year seen Paul Scofield, Robert Helpmann and several other professionals in the role of the moody Dane; he relieved himself of the opinion that James Cooper was by no means the worst of the bunch, and "a worthy pioneer," a compliment to be ranked among the highest.
There was also a wonderful actress in the company who rejoiced in the name of Roma de Roeper, a teacher by profession, who went on to become a stalwart of the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham, one of the nation's foremost (and still prominent) amateur companies.
It was one of the great scandals of post-war amateur theatre that when Ilford built its first new purpose-built theatre of the last century, it was named, for no apparent reason, the Kenneth More, instead of the James Cooper.
But amateur theatre is chiefly about the participants, and Boyd and the RSC obviously see that tapping into a thriving tradition of community acting is a way of transforming the place of the company in the cultural life of the nation.
Our great choral tradition is based on the amateur status of the singers. And for many years there have been large community plays around Britain -- the most notable, recently, was Michael Sheen's Port Talbot Passion -- which mobilise dozens, hundreds even, of local amateur actors and give these projects a special meaning and significance.
The RSC initiative in a project called Open Stages -- amateurs will have access to both Stratford-upon-Avon auditoria this summer -- is part of the nationwide amateur theatre surge surrounding the Cultural Olympiad this year, as Vanessa Thorpe pointed out in her Observer news story yesterday.
Babel, a large community play about the gathering of tribes, with a cast of 500 amateurs and professionals, will be performed outdoors at a yet-to-be-confirmed city landmark this May, produced by WildWorks and Battersea Arts Centre in collaboration with the Lyric Hammersmith, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and the Young Vic.
Amateur theatre still operates in the traditional repertoire, but increasingly it seems to be moving to the cutting edge of democratic participation, large scale projects, and site-specific spectaculars.
Napoleon described us as a nation of shopkeepers. Little did he know that behind the counter and hidden in the store cupboards, the staff were busy slapping on Leichner 5 and 9 and giving their after-hours costumes a bit of a twirl. How long, I wonder, before our own politicians latch on to this unique British phenomenon?