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Michael Coveney: Producers and Twelve Angry Men with three hungry women

Our chief critic's attempt to spend a few days away from the theatre doesn't go entirely to plan

I always think of theatre as one very good way of keeping open all social options: you can be dining with kings one night, slumming with peasants the next, kicking up your heels with nymphs and chorus boys with lights and music a-go-go, or diving into the void with Sound and Fury, or Punchdrunk.

Sometimes, though, even life itself takes over and I've spent the past few days catching up with our friends (and relatives) in the north and even going out for dinner on a weekday evening, something unheard of in the usual routine of a drama critic. This occasion turned out to be an impromptu birthday party for James Roose-Evans, founding director of the Hampstead Theatre Club and as sprightly and amusing as ever at a mere 86 years young.

Our hosts were Tony Curtis - the literary editor and critical biographer of Somerset Maugham, not the Boston strangler - and his wife, Sarah, who is a second cousin of my better and taller half. We were joined by Elizabeth Rutherford, widow of the late FT journalist Malcolm Rutherford (one of their three daughters is the actress Camilla), who was my always surprising successor as FT theatre critic in 1990, and Kevin and Rachel Billington; Kevin's a film director and past president of BAFTA, while Rachel is a novelist and firm follower of Queen's Park Rangers.

She and I were once colleagues on the Evening Standard drama awards panel, which reminded me that the awards are this Sunday and I'm going along - for reasons I shall explain in due course; no, I'm not winning one, but I'm slightly involved in one of the several "special" awards - for the first time in many years. They always used to be at lunchtime in the New Year; now they're at night-time in November and all gussied up in black tie and jewellery. (That dress code used to be reserved for the judging panel's glorious and always enjoyable dinner in the upstairs room at the Gay Hussar.)

So the dinner last night kept me away from the opening of Twelve Angry Men at the Garrick, a play I much admire and one that is usually as riveting in the theatre as it is in the great Sidney Lumet black and white movie with Henry Fonda.

Martin Shaw and Robert Vaughn in Twelve Angry Men
© Francis Loney

That film, in fact, proves that you don't need special effects or big location budgets to make great cinema. The heat and tension are unbearable, the claustrophobia of the jury room on a hot New York afternoon as palpable as the vitality of each character and the cinematography - using long shots, two-shots and camera angles to vary the focus and highlight dramatic moments - incomparable.

It is a little known fact that the late Ken Campbell played Juror 2 in the world premiere of Reginald Rose's stage version (which followed the television film, and the Lumet movie) in 1959 in an amateur theatre production in Ilford, Essex, of all places, where Campbell often appeared with James Cooper's Renegades while a student at RADA.

I talked about the play, and much else, at lunchtime last Thursday with Duncan Weldon and Paul Elliott, two comparatively unsung producers these days, who have been operating, often together, on tour and in the West End for upwards of 45 years. They are a mine of stories and revelations, some of them printable, some not. But neither has ever confused going to the theatre (or indeed putting it on) with not having a good time. If it's making you miserable, don't go, and certainly don't produce it.

And if it's making you no money, what's the point? Needless to say, our lunch was a riot, even if I did turn up half an hour late because a) I'd got the time wrong and b) I simply couldn't remember where the restaurant was - Christopher's in Covent Garden - hidden away behind all the scaffolding opposite The Lion King.

I hadn't been there for years and I can't say in all honesty that I will be rushing back there in the near future, but it was a pleasant and relatively civilised venue for a natter over nosh. I needed stoking up as I was dashing home afterwards before girding my loins for The Magic Flute at the ENO (Duncan and Paul, needless to say, weren't going to bother with that one).

I love The Magic Flute as much as any opera. I've always felt that Ingmar Bergman's movie version is a masterpiece and that Nicholas Hytner's longstanding ENO revival one of his best productions for that company, alongside his Xerxes. Simon McBurney's new staging, imported from Amsterdam — don't we do our own stand-alone productions of these masterpieces any more? - is witty and grungy and clever and beautifully sung, but I haven't fallen in love with it.

Almost everyone in the audience had crowded into the Two Brydges club next door beforehand to wish Helen Anderson, veteran former PR at the Royal Opera House, a happy birthday, but that celebratory, joyous mood was not somehow sustained along the opera's progress. Best bit for me was seeing the orchestra raised in full view, giving the score full welly under Hungarian maestro Gergely Madaras, who sounds like an Indian dish and looks like one, too, with a pleasing air of Carl Davis nuttiness about him.

In between the ENO and James Roose-Evans, we drove up and down the motorway in atrocious weather, attended a social function in Halifax Golf Club (main speech by a retired chief police inspector giving us the low down on the town's murky low life; hilarious stories of the legendary Lily Fogg, the low rent version of The Magic Flute's Queen of the Night) and avoided all contact with theatre folk...

Until it turned out that the children's theatre company Tell Tale Hearts were staying in our country lodging place in the Shibden Valley, in between their gigs in the region with their interactive dance show about food, Yummm!... never expected to be sharing a breakfast table with three female characters called Sweet, Sour and Savoury; and a quick check on their website reveals how they literally tangle up their young audiences in long strips of spaghetti while cavorting and salivating on outsized kitchen furniture. After Twelve Angry Men, three hungry women, perhaps... but, then, who ever knew an actor who wasn't hungry?