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Our Country's sad loss

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Sometimes you couldn't even make it up. I experienced the most poignant of coincidences on Sunday night as I flicked through the pages of Timberlake Wertenbaker's marvellous play, Our Country's Good, in preparation for last night's opening of Orginal Theatre's touring production in the Rose Theatre, Kingston.

I've seen the piece a couple of times since its premiere in 1988 but it's that first cast that stays with me: Ron Cook, Lesley Sharp, Jim Broadbent, Linda Bassett, David Haig... what marvellous actors, all on the cusp of great things and doing them already, really, under Max Stafford-Clark's direction at the Royal Court.

Then a new email popped up on the screen. It was from the producer Chris Malcolm, announcing the sad news that Diana Bliss, the Australian producer who had facilitated the Broadway presentation of Our Country's Good in 1991, had suddenly died.

She was found in a swimming pool at the back of the house she shared in Perth with her husband, Alan Bond, the British-born tycoon whose status as a national hero - he financed the Australian yacht which won the America's Cup in 1983 - took a nosedive when he was declared bankrupt and jailed in 1997 after perpetrating one of Australia's biggest corporate frauds.

The couple had only been married two years when the scandal broke, and the disaster took its toll - Diana struggled with her health for many years - even though Bond had recently renewed his career as a top capitalist player after venturing into African mining.

Bliss, generally known as Di, and only 57 when she died, was a vivacious blonde, the daughter of a Methodist minister, who had worked for Bond since the 1980s, running one of his corporate airlines and living in London where she became one of those busy and enthusiastic fund-raisers the London theatre has depended on since the subsidised theatre got into bed with the private sector in the post-Thatcherite mixed economy.

Lately, she had been engaged in the work of the Perth Theatre Company but, in the 1980s, she was a key player at the Royal Court, and in the West End, taking many productions to Australia. Most recently, she co-produced Flashdance with Chris Malcolm on tour and in the West End. It's her enthusiastic support of the theatre community that will be most sorely missed, says Chris.

Without knowing her, she sounds to me like one of those extraordinary Aussie ladies who occasionally blaze across our theatre; others who spring to mind are Janet Holmes a Court, who ran (and owned) half the West End for a time, and Helen Montagu, who ran the Royal Court and the H M Tennent producing company.

So just as The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford-upon-Avon turned, for me at least, into a kind of tribute to Nicol Williamson on the night his death was annnounced, so the performance of Our Country's Good in Kingston seemed to honour the memory of Diana Bliss.

The evening went fairly well - it's not what you'd call a great production - until it was over when, on arriving at Kingston Station, I discovered that all the trains going to Waterloo were cancelled after a problem at Wimbledon.

So I was stuck on a freezing platform at 10.30pm with only Stephen Unwin, the Rose's artistic director, for company. We made the best of it by sharing a cab to Sloane Square, pulling up outside the very theatre of Our Country's Good's origination, suitably enough.

So my small participation in the tragedy of Diana Bliss acquired a pleasing symmetry. Beyond that, the Alan Bond story - Diana Bliss was his second wife - with its glamour, tragedy and Aussie cultural sigificance sounds to me like a major Hollywood movie (leading roles for Russell Crowe and Judy Davis?); or a new West End musical at the very least... Chris Malcolm may have to produce it on his own this time, alas.


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