Director Stephen Unwin: Peter Nichols was a searingly powerful, heartbreaking dramatist
Peter Nichols cut a daunting figure. Tall, bespectacled and physically awkward, he was a formidable presence in the rehearsal room: guffawing, sighing audibly, scratching his head, and ensuring (not entirely accidentally) that we all knew what he was thinking.
I worked on two of Peter’s plays. The first was a rarity, Born in the Gardens, which I revived at Theatre Royal Bath as part of the Peter Hall Season. I had a stunning cast – Stephanie Cole, Simon Shepherd, Miranda Foster and Allan Corduner – and the revival hit a sweet spot.
Peter disapproved of the way I staged the telephone calls but he was, I think, pleased. On the opening night I received a very kind card thanking me for believing in his “old play”.
But it was directing his masterpiece A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 2013 for Liverpool Playhouse and the Rose in Kingston that really brought me close to Peter, and his rebarbative, fiercely honest and utterly heartbreaking writing.
I too have a profoundly disabled child and I remember visiting him and his brilliant wife, Thelma, and comparing notes. Their daughter died aged 11 and their experience was very different to mine, but I quickly saw just how much had changed in the intervening years in attitude and practice. It was touching and important that we had this experience in common.
There was nothing cosy about Peter. He had none of the ‘darling, you were marvellous’ guff we’re all so used to
In rehearsals, Peter watched the play as if he were seeing it for the first time, laughing loudly at the jokes he’d written a good 50 years previously. Once again I had a wonderful cast and he was especially complimentary about Ralf Little and Rebecca Johnson, who he felt caught something about the central couple that he’d not seen before.
There were aspects of the production he didn’t like, and he made his reservations clear. Though I didn’t heed every note, I listened to him as carefully as I could: after all, he’d had a West End and Broadway hit with Albert Finney as Bri when I was a boy. Respect had to be paid.
The fact is there was nothing cosy about Peter Nichols. He had none of the ‘darling, you were marvellous’ guff that we’re all so used to. He listened to jazz and had a pool table in his front room. He’d had endless rows with producers, actors and directors, and, by the time I knew him, was aggrieved that his later plays were not being staged.
But this was a man of real theatrical insight with a lifetime’s experience, not just as a playwright but as a director, raconteur, comedian, soldier, journalist, novelist, teacher, actor, diarist and screenwriter.
He was frequently provocative, sometimes careless and always bad at hiding his opinions. But he was also a searingly powerful, brilliantly theatrical and heartbreaking dramatist whose best plays are among the finest of our time.
Bravo, Peter, you will be much missed.
Stephen Unwin is a theatre and opera director, writer and teacher
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