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Hitting the headlines

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No-one's rushing to announce who might succeed Michael Boyd as the artistic director at the RSC, or Ian Brown at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, or even Nicholas Hytner (eventually) at the National.

The big topic of national conversation is: who will succeed Fabio Capello as the England team football manager?

The people's choice is Harry Redknapp, the charismatic Londoner who currently manages Tottenham Hotspur and claims he can't read, write, or even sign a cheque book. Sharp as a pin but as illiterate as a navvy, our 'Arry is the working man's top gobshite geezer.

In a day of two halves, as the Independent front page headline described it yesterday, Harry was cleared of all tax evasion charges at Southwark Crown Court and, coincidentlly, Capello resigned in a huff at Wembley Stadium over the sacking of John Terry as the England team captain.

It wasn't so much that Capello, we understand, disapproved of the decision, as Terry is facing racial abuse charges; it was that he hadn't been consulted.

Anyway, fate could not have devised a more beautiful revolving door scenario for Harry and Fabio, and the Sun scored an absolute bullseye with its front page banner headline: 'ARRIVEDERCI.

Critics, on the whole, don't write their own headlines, though sometimes a sub-editor will extract a smart phrase to do the job for him. Kenneth Tynan got away with "Citizen Coon" when he put the boot into Orson Welles's Othello. One of my more recent favourites was Paul Taylor's suggested sub-title for Eugene O'Neill's alcoholic confession-fest, Long Day's Journey Into Night, which was played lighter, funnier and faster than usual: "Absolutely Bibulous."

With that play on the horizon once more, and with David Suchet treading in Laurence Olivier's footsteps again as the tightwad paterfamilias and clapped out leading actor, James Tyrone, you wonder how such dysfunctional domesticity will show up in a contemporary theatre full of nothing but fractured and unhappy families and marriages.

In my secondary role as a wig correspondent, I was unfairly merciless about Penelope Wilton's Mary Tyrone in a Young Vic revival as she played each act in a different hair-piece, culminating in an absurd tea-cosy arrangement that made her look like a neurotic wind-up doll. When hubby turned up with her wedding dress, the play became "Long Day's Journey Into Nightie."

There's no improving on Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends, smartly directed at the Harold Comedy by Jeremy Herrin as a showcase for a new generation of very funny actors.

Ken Dodd usually throws in a chorus of the song of that title towards the end of his stand-up marathon, referring to long gone relatives of the elderly and some of the elderly themselves who have passed on during the performance.

In the Ayckbourn, the lead character Colin has been absent from his friends' lives for three years. He himself has lost his fiancee in the meantime. But last night, the character we most missed, I felt, was the one who doesn't appear at all, the obese husband of Elizabeth Berrington's Marge, a butterball fire prevention officer who is becoming increasingly incapacitated at home.

The role is brilliantly written without ever actually existing. What I love about the theatre is that it is conceivable Aykbourn had him on the stage in an early draft but realised that the budget wouldn't stretch to accommodate an extra actor.

These things happen. Robert David Macdonald once wrote a wonderful play about the Jacobean dramatist John Webster. The first act was a virtually uninterrupted monologue for the lead actor. He then realised that they only had three weeks' rehearsal and he'd already supplied more words than could be learned in a year. So he devised a terrible accident and Webster was shot in the mouth and rendered speechless for the whole of the second  act: it was a brilliant dramatic coup and made the play even more gripping and mysterious.

Following Milton's example, perhaps the play should have been re-titled Webster Agonistes. And what are we to make of another misrepresentative title, Bingo, re-entering the lists next week?

Edward Bond's play, starring Patrick Stewart, returning to the role for the fourth or fifth time, is about the last days of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, inert and disillusioned. Why Bingo? Because originally, Jane Howell, the artistic director of the Northcott in Exeter, where the play was commissioned, didn't want to frighten the audience, and suggested a title with popular appeal.

So Bingo it was, even when John Gielgud (who was about sixty-six, clickety-click) took over the role from Bob Peck when the play was first presented at the Royal Court. Maybe Alan Ayckbourn should re-name How the Other Half Loves, his dinner party play in two adjacent interiors, "Housey Housey."

One of my favourite Ayckbourn puns-in-performance was Michael Hordern's exclamation when he trod on a garden rake that shot up to hit him in the face and he acted "cool" with a distracted cry of "What hoe?!"


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