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Worth a Read: Theatre Books Round-up - Sep 2009

By • West End
Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party? Would you sing a song to Sondheim on your left? Or chew over the view with Miller on your right? Whatsonstage.com would love to be able to offer one lucky reader the chance to spend a memorable evening with the actor, director, playwright or lyricist of their choice, assuming their theatre icon is still alive. What a shame we can’t.

Our featured book this month can, however, help you make up your mind who to pick, should you ever be faced with that decision. Richard Eyre’s Talking Theatre compromises 40 of his insightful conversations with leading figures of the contemporary stage. So while you might not meet the contributors in person, if you read this you’ll be able to drop their thoughts into your own dialogues over a rushed meal at home with your partner, while they point out the hole in the ceiling that’s causing a drip of water from the upstairs bathroom to create a puddle on their plate or argue over the bills. Who needs glamour when you have domestic bliss?

It seems to be a particularly popular time for unusual slants on biographies. The son of Arnold Ridley, best known for playing Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army and also a celebrated playwright, has written a moving and intimate memoir of his father’s descent into loneliness, called Godfrey’s Ghost. Plus, now out in paperback, is Thomas Wright’s account of Oscar Wilde, Oscar’s Books, which he constructed by reading Wilde’s entire library. Those with an interest in the great Dubliner but with other things to do, such as read more books on this list or fix that leaky ceiling, could opt for Wright’s work and just a couple of the texts he mentions instead.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer


Playwrights, Actors and Directors

Talking Theatre by Richard Eyre
Nick Hern Books, £20

What does Dame Judi Dench think of Shakespeare’s women? Why is David Hare baffled by Beckett? Who was Sir John Gielgud’s hero? If you like to namedrop, then this is the book for you. Through 40 lively and intelligent conversations with writers, actors and producers, the director of the National Theatre from 1987 to 1997 constructs a brilliantly perceptive picture of the contemporary stage. While chapters easily stand alone, reading several in succession encourages enlightening comparisons. You can read Liam Neeson’s and Harold Pinter’s takes on Eugene O’Neill; or a conversation between Richard Eyre and Arthur Miller, and then Tony Kushner’s first memory of going to the theatre to see the latter’s Death of a Salesman, aged four. Captivating.

Godfrey’s Ghost by Nicolas Ridley
Mogzilla Life, £9.99

"There is little quite so heartbreaking as seeing someone you love fail. Not once. Not twice. But daily. Day after day. The elements of tragedy. Pity and fear. Pity for my father. Fear for myself," writes Nicolas Ridley in this intimate and moving biography of his father. Arnold Ridley, who died 25 years ago, is best remembered for his role as the gentle, ageing Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army. But he was also a celebrated West End playwright, whose successful Ghost Train was first staged in 1925 and was made into five film or television versions. In the mid-Fifties, he developed writer’s cramp, which could have paralysed his right hand, ending his writing and acting career. Although an operation lessened the damage, he was left with writer’s block. He produced lots of notes, but few of his later plays were recognised, and he became increasingly lonely. His son’s portrait is frank but not too melancholy, as Nicolas reminisces about his father’s attitude to money, parties, sex and a stuffed bear called Tim.

Andrew Lloyd Webber by John Snelson
Yale University Press, £14.99

He’s won seven Tonys, three Grammys, seven Oliviers, a Golden Globe, an Oscar and two Emmys, yet Lord Lloyd Webber’s not everyone’s favourite man in musicals. He’s a plagiarist, cry some, pointing to those Puccini ‘rip-offs’ in The Phantom of the Opera. He’s inconsistent, cry others – Cats might have been popular, running in the West End for 21 years, but what about The Woman in White? That was panned when it went on stage in 2004.

John Snelson’s in-depth work shows how Lloyd Webber’s eclectic interests and inclusive style has made his musicals hard to place within the traditional cannon. Analysing riffs, melodies and rhythms, he traces the influence of the composer’s pop background on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and draws parallels between rock groups Deep Purple and The Who and Jesus Christ Superstar. This is more of a technical study than a biography for bedside reading, but fascinating nonetheless.

Oscar’s Books by Thomas Wright
Vintage, £8.99

Oscar Wilde was an avid reader; he claimed he could read both pages of an open book at the same time. Having read pretty much all of Wilde’s library, tracking down originals covered with his notes and the odd jam stain wherever he could, Wright has constructed a fascinating and innovative biography of the Dublin playwright, novelist and poet. He has considered all 2,000 books in Wilde’s collection kept at his Tite Street house in Chelsea, as well as those Wilde mentions in his letters. There’s Hans Christian Andersen and Aristophanes, John Donne and Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw and Stendhal – all woven into the chronological framework of Wilde’s life. What he did with, or rather who he gave his own copies of his plays to, and their personal inscriptions – also gets a mention. This is a warm, enthusiastic book – a kind of celebratory biography.


Plays

Enron by Lucy Prebble
Methuen Drama, £8.99

At just 28, Lucy Prebble has already won almost every most promising playwright award going. Her second play, Enron, transfers this month from the Chichester Festival Theatre, where it attracted rave reviews over the summer, to London’s Royal Court. Its planned London run, from 17 September to 7 November, is sold out, but an insider tells us it might well move to the West End.

With a winning mix of classical drama and sharp satire, Prebble tells the story of Jeffrey Skilling, the former president and man behind the collapse of the Texan energy company in 2006. While he was found guilty of insider trading, a conspiracy charge and securities fraud, 20,000 people their jobs and many their life savings. Prebble has a firm grasp of the subject and admits that much of her play is speculative fiction rather than a historical, for the record account, so there’s no need to be put of by the words ‘traders’ and ‘cashflow’ if you’re not an accountant or economics buff. Her energetic, quick-witted dialogue makes this a jump-off-the-page read.

Plays: I by Kwame Kwei-Armah
Methuen Drama, £14.99

Former Casualty actor Kwame Kwei-Armah’s latest hard-hitting, issue-driven play, Seize the Day, about a well-spoken, good-looking black London Mayoral candidate, runs from 22 October to 17 December at the Tricycle. Plays: 1 comprises four of his earlier serious works, including his breakthrough drama Elimina’s Kitchen, about London gun culture, which was nominated for a Laurence Olivier award and, in 2004, made him the first black Briton to have a play staged in the West End when it transferred from the National.

Let There be Love is about an old West Indian immigrant’s friendship with his Polish home visitor, dealing with racism, domestic violence, citizenship, sexual politics and euthanasia in a tear-jerker kind of way. Fix Up exposes the tensions within the Afro-Caribbean community through the founder of a black political think-tank; while State of Regret, another black activist drama, was inspired by Tony Blair’s speech about Britain’s role in the slave trade. This is a valuable quartet of honest, touching and powerful plays.


Theory

The Science of Acting by Sam Kogan, edited by Helen Kogan
Routledge, £16.99

Founder of North London’s School of the Science of Acting (now The Academy of the Science of Acting), the late Sam Kogan developed an incredibly detailed theory of how to become a character based on pinning down how we think. In this fascinating actor’s manual, edited by his daughter, the Russian demystifies how thoughts originate, develop and manifest themselves, working on the theory that if an actor thinks like a character, they will inevitably react, feel and behave like them. By explaining the workings of human nature, he illustrates how actors can create plausibly engaging characters and express themselves with greater depth.

Kogan, who moved to England in 1974, was indebted to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian actor and theatre director Konstantin Stanislavsky, but says he disagreed with most of his premises and conclusions. His clear style, using warmly candid personal experiences and humour, makes this an invaluable and compelling study.

Improvisation in Rehearsal by John Abbott
Nick Hern Books, £10.99

Actors should be prepared to dress up like their character and order something in a restaurant in the outside world without so much as a qualm, writes John Abbott in this directors’ handbook. The former RSC member turned acting teacher embraces improvisation with joyful enthusiasm in trying to fathom what’s going on in a character’s head in another work influenced by Stanislavsky (see above). "As a rehearsal technique, improvisation exploits the actor’s imagination," Abbott explains. "It allows them to experience certain events, emotions and relationships in order to find a truthful way of thinking and behaving as their character." Referring to Shakespeare, Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness, Abbott outlines exercises for every stage of the rehearsal, from initial research to detailing specific scenes – all in neatly organised chapters. Chatty and practical.


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