The circle of theatrical life

Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn, who appear in A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
by -

What goes around, comes around, they always say, and it's absolutely true in the theatre. Just tonight Marti Webb's life comes full circle, as she returns to the West End for a short run in Tell Me on a Sunday, the one-woman song cycle that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black created for her back in 1979 for a Sydmonton Festival showing. It led to a recording and a subsequent TV broadcast before it was then bolted together with a dance half to become Song & Dance that Webb again originated in its 1982 stage premiere at the Palace Theatre.

It isn't actually the first time that she has returned to the role – she's played it variously over the years on UK tours, and last took over from Denise van Outen when a revised version of Tell Me on a Sunday returned to the West End's Gielgud Theatre in 2003. It is now all of 35 years on from when Webb first performed it. Though it may be ungallant to mention a lady's age, the fact that she is now 69 may give a special poignancy to its story of a single woman who is still looking for love in all the wrong places.

By coincidence, another piece of theatre history also returns to London tonight, when A Taste of Honey is revived at the National. Shelagh Delaney's landmark play – thus so not just because she was only 18 when she wrote it but also for its bold addressing of class, race, gender and sexual orientation – was of course originally premiered at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East back in 1958. That theatre is itself revisiting its own past right now, with last week's opening there of its first revival of the company-created Oh What a Lovely War, that the theatre had premiered in 1963.  (By coincidence, both A Taste of Honey and Oh What a Lovely War subsequently transferred to the same West End house, namely Wyndham's).

And Stratford East will next revisit another Littlewood show when director Terry Johnson revives Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'be in May, with a cast led by EastEnders star Jessie Wallace and Gary Kemp. First produced at Stratford East in 1959, before transferring to the West End in 1969, it's all part of the theatre's mission to celebrate the centenary of Littlewood's birth, but as Kerry Michael, the theatre's artistic director, has also remarked, "It’s an exciting contrast to Oh What a Lovely War and demonstrates the great breadth of work undertaken by Joan and her Theatre Workshop Company.”

Theatre is, of course, a living, breathing organism, and only lives in performance; in the case of Fings, we don't even have a perfect record of what the show fully comprised, since the original score and band parts were lost. So bringing it back now isn't just a history lesson, but a mission in reconstruction and trying to return to the authors' original intentions.

We also currently have two new productions, both at the Young Vic, of legendary plays that had their first London runs at the Royal Court. Beckett's Happy Days, now being revived in the Young Vic's main house with Juliet Stevenson, was first seen in Sloane Square in 1962 when Brenda Bruce played the role of Winnie; I missed that one as it was the year I was born! The first time I ever saw the play was in a subsequent Royal Court revival when Billie Whitelaw played it there in 1979.

Meanwhile, in the Maria studio, the South African classic Sizwe Banzi is Dead is being revived. Originally premiered in South Africa in 1972 before coming to the Royal Court in 1973 and then transferring to the West End, I last saw it when its original cast John Kani and Winston Ntchona (who also co-devised the play with Athol Fugard) revived it at the National in 2007: another circle of theatrical life being movingly summonsed.

But theatre isn't static, to be held in the memory only of the way it was first done; what's rewarding this time is to see younger theatre makers – directors Natalie Abrahami and Matthew Xia respectively – tackling them with fresh eyes, and making us see them afresh, too.