29 SEPTEMBER 1967, Page 27


Power people


Mrs Wilson's Diary (Theatre Royal, Stratford, E15) Philadelphia Here I Come! (Lyric), Mrs Wilson's Diary, by John Wells and Richard Ingrams, has taken to the boards at last— heralded by a chorus of amazement, that the Lord Chamberlain should find it in his heart to licence the comic treatment of persons in high. places; and followed by a chorus of com- plaint, when it turned out that the play itself is not especially disrespectful, let alone scurrilous or wounding. Both reactions are absurd. What is amazing is that the Lord Chamberlain should have hesitated in the first place. And to reproach the play with kindness is beside the point since Mrs Wilson's Diary, as it appears week by week in Private Eve, is not concerned with spite or malice-. It is, on the contrary, a work of solace, goodwill and considerable devo- tion, designed expressly to repair the damage Mr Wilson does himself: For, if the insincerity and the taste for cheap heroics displayed by the Prime Minister in public are a source of perpetual dismay to,his supporters, it is at least some comfort to reflect that the pipe he wields with such complacent unction is a patent Goo-less Briar Knob, or that the hairstyle owes its lustre to patient tending with Silvitex Wave Lotion. The brilliance of Mr Wells and Mr Ingrams lies, in short, in having faced the implications of their hero's public image: in having spotted, almost as soon as Mr Wilson came to power, that home life at Number Ten would consist, not of scandal or scurrility, rather of the prim, suburban drab- ness familiar from the Grossmiths' Diary of a Nobody. Lord Rosebery once wrote that he regarded any bedroom which he occupied as unfurnished without a copy of the Diary of a Nobody; it is no small tribute to the preient Diary that it induces similar feelings, of pleasure and esteem, towards a subject who, like Mr Pooter, might otherwise appear distasteful, when not simply dull, to the casual observer in the street.

Inevitably perhaps, under Joan Littlewood's direction, much of the delicacy has evaporated on the stage. Gone are the Peter Scotts and the flights of elaster ducks, gone is the electric Kosiglow logfire from Harold's den, all that wealth of detail recorded with a truthfulness and a meticulous precision which managed to reveal a kind of muted poetry even in the heart of drabness. Instead we have primary colours, bright cardboard sets and an atmosphere of brisk loud jollity which is death to the subtleties of the printed text. Even the Golditone Door Chimes have given way to something more strident from the band.

On the other hand, there are nuances in per- formance, undercurrents of conflict and emo- tional tensions which are well beyond the range of the original. The equivocal relationship be- tween Mrs Wilson and Inspector Trimfittering

(Stephen Lewis, who proves a real brick), for instance, is not only preserved intact but con- siderably deepened on the stage. And Myvanwy Jenn's Mrs Wilson is a joy to watch, protecting her spouse with infinite, appealing modesty against a hostile world in general and a some- what nosy Mrs Callaghan (Sandra Caron, a nicely calculated performance) in particular, and bridling only slightly at his occasional hurt- ful coldness. As for Harold himself, played by Bill Wallis with uncanny accuracy, he flowers with extraordinary sympathy in venom or depression, and especially in his fondness for self-dramatisation. If there are things in this performance which impose a strain on our credulity—Harold's habit of quoting Shakes- peare, his strangely garish clothes, or his bril- liant impersonation of Olivier—these are hardly Mr Wallis's fault. Much nearer the mark are his moments of conscious parody, chewing on a couple of limp Whiffs and brandishing a plastic beaker of Wincarnis with defiant, Churchillian bravado; or taking a phone call from the Palace amid a sudden, obsequious hush in which one may guess, from Harold's pitiful embarrass- ment, at fairly caustic observations on the other end of the line.

Best of all perhaps, in this stage version, is the transformation of the Prime Minister's political press officer (here renamed Hoffman for some reason) from a kind of tame household butt in Private Eye into a being, in Peter Reeves's performance, of exquisite sensibility. It is Hoff- man who tends his master's every need with selfless devotion, and Hoffman who, at every turn, is snubbed and punished for the humilia- tions and petty disappointments which life exacts from Harold. There is something extra- ordinarily touching in his humility, his readi- ness to leave the typewriter, to abandon in mid- stream an important article on the cultural significance of The Wobblies, all for the most menial and degrading tasks. And the pent-up heartbreak, the nostalgia and unquenchable idealism of the intellectual Left are crystallised in Hoffman's yearning, tremolo ballad at the piano (delicious songs throughout); even more poignant is his moment of near break- down when Harold attempts appeasement on the telephone to his good friend Smithie Net me the so-called Prime Minister of Rhodesia') —an inner tumult signalled in black frowns and

quavering oaths and vanquished finally at a cost on which one scarcely dares to dwell.

There are other gems in the production— Bob Grant's visual imitation of George Brown, Carl Forgione's vocal rendering of David Frost and by no means least Howard Goorney's naked Indian Person, hung with bells and perched on the piano like a piece of priceless, fragile, giggling porcelain. This, in short, is the best thing Miss Littlewood has done since her finest hour and I hope may run as long as that did.

Philadelphia Here I Come! comes to us from Dublin via Broadway, where no doubt it went down well. It tells of tears and heartbreak on his last night at home for a young lad planning to emigrate to the bright lights from rundown rainy Ballybeg. Once there was an Irishman who was diddled out of a load of potatoes by an absconding West Country businessman and who, after months of solicitors' letters and fruitless threats to sue, finally received an un- stamped postcard which read: Are you still sitting in your bog gibbering? Here we have the Irish sitting in their bog and not so much gib- bering as maundering about the blarney and the rainbows and the tay and the barefoot moun- tain lassies who die young. No wonder they die young if the alternative is to live with the suffo- cating self-importance of the daddies and the laddies. And if there is anything to equal the self-importance of the Irish—at any rate of this type of export Irishry—it is their bland garru- lous and immoderately indulged self-satisfac- tion. Both are here presented in their purest form.

As for the much admired 'theatrical' device of splitting our hero into two—Patrick Bedford and Donal Donnelly, the one as his woebegone public self, the other as his roguish plaster gnome or private self—why it should be held in any way to mitigate the basic boredom of the work beats me. It is in any case a notion which could have sprung only from a blatant indifference to dramatic effect. The result is a two-and-a-half-hour soliloquy scored more or .less in monotone for two and punctuated by brief encounters of a deplorable banality with sweetheart, schoolmaster, false friends, etc.; from a cast of fourteen Mairin 13. O'Sullivan stands out and Madge Ryan is permitted a short tart .foray half-way through the middle act. ' Brian Friel wrote the play.