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Thumper Theo Falls To Earth

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According to the programme of Lord of the Flies, Timothy Sheader's tremendous opening production in this year's Regent's Park season, Theo Cowan, who plays one of the stranded schoolboys, has done a bit of telly and a couple of roles at the Bristol Old Vic.

So he's right at the start of his career. In fact, he's just eighteen years old. He's also stick thin and fresh as a daisy, which will come as a great relief to older theatregoers and quite a few senior actors who might for one minute have thought that the "real" Theo Cowan had been reincarnated and put on a diet.

That Theo Cowan, known affectionately as "Thumper" by Dirk Bogarde, was a film publicist with the Rank Organisation before setting up his own West End operation and launching the careers of Peter Thompson, my wife Sue Hyman, the journalist and editor Mark Law (author of The Pyjama Game, the best, and only, book I've ever read about judo), Jenny Secombe (Harry's daughter) and countless others.

Apart from Bogarde, other big film stars who retained Theo's services included Peter Sellers, David Niven, Michael Caine, Claire Bloom, Rod Steiger, Sammy Davis Junior and Richard Attenborough. He never married, but was romantically linked, as they say, with a string of beautiful actresses, most notably Margaret Lockwood, the vivacious star of The Lady Vanishes, The Stars Look Down and The Wicked Lady.

Why "Thumper"? Probably becaues he was big and imposing, a former Army officer who resembled a cross between Rupert Davies as Maigret (a pipe was always clenched between his teeth) and Jack Hawkins. He was of the much-missed old school who saw the job of publicity as dealing openly and honestly with journalists and keeping their clients' names out of the papers, except when necessary to the work in hand.

He liked his food, and was a formidable trencherman. Not until he died, in fact, did many of us know that we weren't the only, specially honoured, re-fuelling station on his Sunday peregrinations. He'd often have lunch in two places, then tea in three more. But you were never not glad to see him. He was the most wonderful company.

He was also wonderfully accident prone. Rushing from his office in Clarges Street, he hailed a stationary taxi and jumped into the back seat with a loud cry of "Wardour Street" -- and promptly sat on a pair of knees belonging to the the travelling female incumbent.

One year at the Cannes Film Festival, he discovered that he'd packed his pipe-cleaning rags instead of his underwear; and when he did remember his pants and vests, he once threw them down a rubbish chute in an American motel thinking he'd found his ingeniously secreted bedroom cupboard in the dark.

I'm sure the new Theo Cowan is equally delightful, though not half so clumsy, but he's got a lot of eating ahead of him if he's going to justify the name he's been given. Rations are a bit sparse on the tropical island in the park, and the roast hog looks unappetisingly like a mountain boar.

As an opener to the season, this revival of Nigel Williams's 1995 adaptation for the RSC is a pretty strong statement of intent, just as The Crucible was last year. And it's proving controversial among the old Regent's Park guard. They don't like the reversal of Shakespeare's pre-eminence in the scheduling.

But I think Sheader has sussed that the audience for open air Bard has probably decamped now to the Globe -- I don't think he's entirely right about that; the Globe crowd are much more "touristy" and "destination Shakespeare" whereas the Regent's Park audience is more local, more conservative, probably, and much less "academic" -- so that he can re-define Regent's Park as another sort of theatre completely, one that builds on its reputation for summer musicals but places Shakespeare in an even wider context of world drama and, most crucially, a more intense awakening of the magical environment in terms of design and staging.

We shall see. This year, Shakespeare has been relegated to just one slot in the programme, and that's Pericles for six year-olds, with no "name" actors. The other shows are The Beggar's Opera, which always disappoints in the theatre, and the scrappy Gershwin hybrid Crazy For You.

The proof of the theatrical pudding, as Brecht and Theo Cowan said, is always in the eating. But you could argue that Sheader is taking huge risks here, and that, on paper at least, this is a rather thin-looking season. And no-one is thinner-looking than Theo's new namesake.


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