Michael Coveney: Stage left into film with Hayley Atwell and Celia Imrie
Both Tim Walker in the Telegraph and Mark Shenton in The Stage have highlighted a real problem for the hottest young actors keen to combine their film careers with prestige stage performances in the West End.
It emerges that Hayley Atwell's appearances in The Pride at the Trafalgar Studios are sporadic, depending on her filming schedule with Kenneth Branagh at Pinewood Studios. And not even those away days are fixed for the information of the paying public; if the day's work on set finishes earlier than expected, then she's back on stage; and if not, not, presumably.
This is a shocking state of affairs, unthinkable a few years ago when true stars of stage and screen - Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Alec Guinness - committed to West End runs of six or nine months and never missed a performance. Nowadays, a West End run with young stars is scheduled for ten weeks, three months tops - God knows how anyone makes any money - and contracts bent or wobbled to suit the filming schedules that always take precedence.
A different kind of situation can arise when a management digs its heels in, as the Rose, Kingston, did a few years ago when Celia Imrie, cast as Judith Bliss in Hay Fever, was suddenly offered a role in John Madden's film of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The film offer came several weeks before rehearsals started, but the Rose would not release her from her contract and she was obliged, somewhat resentfully, I would have thought, to rehearse and then play for two weeks of the four-week run.
At which point, she scarpered to join Dames Maggie and Judi and Bill Nighy on location in India while Nichola McAuliffe came in and played Judith Bliss for the final two weeks. This at least, though far from satisfactory, is fairer on the customer, and no-one would have felt short-changed at having McAuliffe for Imrie, some even happier, perhaps.
As it happens, I was talking to Celia yesterday morning about this and other matters as she put the finishing touches to her upcoming cabaret performance at the Crazy Coqs in the wonderful new Brasserie Zedel restaurant. Luckily for her, she was in Nice, where she has an apartment. Unluckily for me, I wasn't.
She described the scene of the sea and the promenade as viewed from one of her two balconies (I'm only surprised that Elyot Chase hadn't materialised on the other one) in rather too much glorious detail for me to share her enthusiasm. Admittedly the sun was shining a bit here, too, yesterday, but I've been laid low with the most shocking chest cold and have been wheezing around the house in slippers and pyjamas like one of the old grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Still, Celia always cheers you up - I've known her since she was at drama school in Guildford with Bill Nighy and, as it happens, my brother - and she was full of the joys of swimming and singing and generally swanning around having fun, which is what she does for most of the time, even when putting the finishing touches to a novel she's written called Not Quite Nice. She said she'd discovered that Chekhov had written The Seagull just down the road from her, and no-one could be surprised that so many artists and writers had gravitated in the past towards Nice.
She had not heard, though, that one of Nice's most famous residents of late, the Polish dramatist and short story writer Slawomir Mrozek, had died in the city just a week ago. Mrozek is only known here for his fiction and his most famous play, Tango, which the RSC produced at the Aldwych in 1966. It was more or less the first RSC production by Trevor Nunn, with a text (based on someone else's translation) by Tom Stoppard.
Nunn had been hoping to direct Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which the Royal Court had turned down, but the money suddenly ran out, and he had to pass the play on to some Oxford students, who duly scored a critical triumph (well, one rave review by Ronald Bryden in the Observer) at that year's Edinburgh Festival, following which Kenneth Tynan snapped it up (and Stoppard, too, for a while) for the National.
Nunn had tried to keep Stoppard on board at the RSC by getting him to "improve the dialogue" of Tango. The leading role, a sort of modern-day Hamlet called Arthur, was to be played by Dudley Sutton. But Sutton was replaced by Nunn himself for the first three weeks of the run. And not because he ran off to a film set, but because he was ill. Nunn was then succeeded by Michael Williams as Arthur, leaving him free to make his name overnight in Stratford in October with his sensational black and white thrown-together production of The Revenger's Tragedy.