Ken Loach and Kenneth Williams… ever seen them together? I realise the idea defines the term ‘far-fetched’, but as well as appearing in the same sentence, they have also starred in the same show. In 1961, Loach was Williams’ understudy at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in the revue One Over the Eight.
Despite stiff competition, that’s possibly my favourite arcane theatre anecdote and I was reminded of it by Amber Massie-Blomfield’s interview with Kieran Hurley in her survey of theatre-themed lockdown watching and reading.
Recommending the Oscar-winning Birdman, Hurley inserts his tongue deftly into his cheek to suggest that no one wants to see the Ken Loach version of theatreland. And anyone looking for Loach-style realism here is going to come up short.
Musical theatre made a stab at it back in 1927. Show Boat is hardly the only musical to offer life lessons – Sweeney Todd is a stark warning of the hazards of picking the wrong hairdresser – but Oscar Hammerstein was wise to theatre when dramatising Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel about life on a Mississippi show boat with the song Life Upon the Wicked Stage, detailing sensible advice to wannabe starlets about stage-door johnnies: “Wild old men who give you jewels and sables / Only live in Aesop’s fables.”
The story of theatrical survival in tough times was a Hollywood staple
That sublimely rhymed song could also serve as a subtitle to Ferber’s 1936 play, co-written with George S Kaufman, Stage Door. Set in a boarding house for actresses, the terrific 1937 movie version majors in snappy dialogue about the hopes, dreams and rent-paying desires of performers struggling to make it on Broadway. If that wasn’t enough, consider the cast, headed by supremely self-confident Katharine Hepburn and hard-bitten Ginger Rogers, with memorable turns from Eve ‘living droll’ Arden, a young Lucille Ball and an almost entirely non-dancing Ann Miller.
The story of theatrical survival in tough times was already a Hollywood staple, not least because 42nd Street in 1933 was such a giant hit and gave the profession the line “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” But the startlingly similar backstager Gold Diggers of 1933, released two months later, is better. Both featured young loves Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, but Gold Diggers has a stronger script plus magnificently no-messing Joan Blondell and drier-than-dry Aline MacMahon.
Both films, and the copycats that followed, show dancers struggling in rehearsals for the big numbers. That trope understandably appears in almost every feature film about dancers, from Shirley MacLaine versus Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point to Robert Altman’s The Company. The latter, the long-nurtured brainchild of ex-dancer Neve Campbell, has a strong whiff of authenticity, which is more than can be said of a single frame of the ludicrously overpraised ballet-horror Black Swan.
The latter attempts, amid other nonsense, to present a supposedly groundbreaking interpretation of Swan Lake, but actually looks like a reject from the 1950s. Bizarre but true, you get a better sense of a ballet company stalked by murderous instincts in Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon’s almost forgotten 1937 novel A Bullet in the Ballet. The writing is so arch it’s almost a viaduct, but we can only bow low before something described by the Evening Standard as “pulling the leg of solemnity both in ‘detection’ and in ballet-mongering”.
Joking aside, Anthony Quinn’s captivating Curtain Call, set one year earlier but written in 2015, is the most convincing novel about backstage life I’ve read. It too features a murder plot in a theatrical world potentially rife with cliché, but Quinn’s sharp, evocative prose avoids every pitfall of the genre. He even pulls off the rare trick of creating a theatre critic who, although less than flattering, feels drawn from life rather than a caricature.
You’d think playwright Neil Simon would manage to put theatre on screen with something like truth, but his 1977 hit The Goodbye Girl is unwatchable now, at least to me. His crime is the Off-Broadway production at the centre of the plot in which our hero Richard Dreyfuss stars. He’s giving – hold my sides – Richard III as a limp-wristed queen. Of course, we’re meant to see that as being preposterous, but boy do Simon and director Herb Ross grind the ‘joke’ endlessly into the ground.
There are acres more truth and genuine humour in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, a comedy companion to his Crimes and Misdemeanors. But for a backstager blending both comedy and tragedy into a deceptively dark brew, watch Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman giving near career-finest performances in Mike Newell’s film of Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure. Set in a down-at-heel Liverpool theatre in 1947, the film reeks of theatrical passion, often sad and dangerously misplaced, but which is love, actually.