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Michael Coveney: Beach books in summer at Journey's End

By • London

I'm taking a later than usual summer holiday in September this year, and I'm already planning my books for the beach. With the RSC production of Hilary Mantel's historical blockbusters, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, looming in the New Year, I'm going to try and get beyond my current book mark in the first volume.

It's a tough read, and I'll probably have to start all over again, though I've got a horrible guilty feeling that I may not bother. On the other hand, I've already dusted down my P G Wodehouse in preparation for Perfect Nonsense, the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster new play starring Stephen Mangan at the Duke of York's in November; I haven't read Wodehouse for over 20 years, and I'm in heaven on the first page.

Talking of upcoming plays, I was surprised to see Matthew Kelly given top billing in To Sir With Love at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, assuming that this was a piece of counter-intuitive colour-blind casting; Sidney Poitier starred in the film of a black teacher (the author, E R Braithwaite) having a tough time in an East End of London secondary school - a school in which I myself worked as a supply teacher before going to university. Turns out Matthew's only playing the headmaster - and hopefully selling a few tickets.

And talking of books, the English teacher in that school, Glengall Secondary Modern - it was on the Isle of Dogs and most of the children came from families of dockers and labourers; known as a "sink" school, it was the lowest of the low in the Inner London Education Authority - was a marvellous, patently out-gay chap called Freddie Close, who wore the only striped blazer ever seen on the Isle of Dogs in the late 1960s. He didn't try and get the the kids to read Wodehouse (who might have invented him) but I distinctly remember him turning them on to his special favourite, George Orwell.

I thought of Freddie the minute I picked up my Jeeves Omnibus (main source of the Alan Ayckbourn/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical gem) and wondered what became of him. There's a phrase in Robert Gore-Langton's excellent new book about R C Sherriff, Journey's End: The Classic War Play Explored, that instantly brings another forgotten figure alive: "He seems to have been gentle, strait-laced, highly sporty, hero-worshipping, deeply conservative and proudly unintellectual"... a bit like Robert himself, then.

Robert's book is not primarily a character study, though it is that, too. It's a well researched, extended programme essay, a meditation indeed on the play's standing and achievement as both a theatrical phenomenon and a document of war. Starting with Sherriff's own experience on the Western Front, it analyses the various campaigns and strategies, and relates everything that happens in the play to the evidence of military history and Sherriff's own diaries and letters home, culminating in a deft production history, from the 1928 premiere starring an unknown Laurence Olivier, through to the recent David Grindley revival.

By the end of reading a packed, informative 125 pages, you wonder if this book might not serve as a template for a whole series of short books about classic plays that are always being studied in schools and colleges, as well as produced by professional and amateur companies all over the world. Methuen used to do very good student editions of Ibsen, for instance; but most play texts come nowadays with very little background information or critical apparatus, and there might be a gap in the market.

Robert's book is published by Oberon, now established as the main theatrical publishers alongside Nick Hern Books, Faber and Methuen. Publisher James Hogan has sent out a party invitation: "James Hogan is 70, Oberon Books is 27; would the reverse were true!" Although Nick Hern has been publishing plays and theatrical books for nearly half a century (at Methuen, then at Walker Books), he's only had his own imprint for 25 years, an anniversary lately celebrated with a big party - held in the same venue, the October Gallery in Holborn, where I first introduced him to his partner, the actress Jane Maud, on the occasion of a big party of my own - and a charming anthology of "theatrical beginnings," My First Play.

The contributors, and witnesses, in My First Play include the director Mike Alfreds, founder of Shared Experience, whose latest book, Then What Happens? is also published by Nick Hern. This is an immensely detailed and fascinating "how to" book for theatrical students and inquisitive professionals, about the transformation of narrative into drama, including Alfreds' enormous repertoire of road-tested exercises, improvisations and workshops.

The book won't be in my beach bag when I set off to southern Italy, but I will reach for it whenever I want to try and say something authoritative about adaptation, third person narration or group story-telling, all techniques that Alfreds knows more about than anyone else in our modern theatre. And how he puts all this difficult stuff into sensible words and cogent paragraphs is a source of wonder in itself; the man's not only a great director but also, apparently, a brilliant teacher.

Tags: Michael CoveneyStephen ManganPerfect NonsenseMatthew KellyMy First Play


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