31 DECEMBER 1994, Page 31


Down memory lane

Sheridan Morley

It was the year when a High Court judge solemnly banned Maxwell the Musical, not then even in preview, on the grounds that it might do damage to the case for the defence: Moby Dick was however allowed to continue at the Barbican, despite the fact that it concerned a great white whale disappearing mysteriously into the ocean. The case has yet to come to court.

It was the year when it took 88 living English dramatists to write a letter to the Guardian demanding as of right that their work should be seen on regional stages, specifying three new plays a year but nowhere explaining how an audience for such work was to be similarly guaranteed to theatre managers who would be happier presenting Australian soap stars in pan- tomimes with wrestlers.

It was the year when two Evening Stan- dard drama critics solemnly fell out over whether or not there were too many gay plays on West end stages, and when the drama critic of the Observer equally solemnly suggested that good directors should not be allowed to make money out of marathon musical revivals when they could be starving for their art on studio stages.

It was the year when Richard Eyre announced he would be leaving the Nation- al Theatre, and when several regional play- houses announced they would be closing for good or at the very least operating only as receiving houses, always assuming there was anything still on tour to receive by then.

It was the year when as many American actresses got fired from the leading role in Sunset Boulevard as were actually allowed to play it. It was the year when the play- wright with the greatest number of first nights in London over Christmas was Charles Dickens.

It was the year when the Japanese sent us Out of the Blue, which very soon went Into the Red, and when Barry Manilow's Copacabana survived some of the worst reviews since Pearl Harbor. It was the year when our greatest living actor was finally given his own theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, an honour he should have been accorded some 30 years ago.

It was the year of the solo show and the tribute concert, which is much the same thing except that the star of the latter is usually dead in a plane crash and has to be impersonated.

It was the year when Miss Saigon over- took My Fair Lady to become the longest- running Drury Lane musical, when Vivian Ellis got to be 90, and when Sir Ian McK- ellen admitted tearing anti-gay pages out of Gideon bibles in American hotel bed- rooms.

It was the year when the RSC staged an entire Shakespeare Festival to prove how much better they were at it than any for- eign company, and when most of the best drama at the Barbican surrounded the res- ignation of its Baroness O'Cathain. It was the year when Vanessa Redgrave gave us Brecht in Hollywood under her usual, mis- taken impression that foreign wars and social injustice allow her to give appalling performances in the name of charity. It was the year when the Samuel Beckett estate insisted that his works be performed exactly as the author intended; fortunately for Sean Mathias at the Warehouse, the Noel Coward estate is somewhat less intol- erant. In contemporary drama there was major new work from Arthur Miller, Brian Friel, David Edgar, Jonathan Harvey, Kevin Elyot and Terry Johnson, though none of it originated anywhere near a com- mercial house.

Performances of the year would have to include Maggie Smith in Three Tall Women and Clare Higgins leading the National's belated but welcome discovery of the great- ness of Broadway drama with both Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour and Ten- nessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth. Actor of the year was undoubtedly Tom Courtenay in a breathtaking return to greatness as the peripatetic, alcoholic Mus- covite in Moscow Stations and my perfor- mance of the year would go to Richard Nelson's New England at the Barbican Pit, a marvellously Chekhovian study of dis- placed Brits in America which, as so often with Nelson, got largely dismissed because we somehow expect our American drama- tists to shout rather than whisper: see also A.R.Gurney.

Theatres of the year include as usual the Warehouse, Bush, Hampstead and Rich- mond's Orange Tree, though as usual I'm told I stay far too close to London. On the other hand anything good seems to get here pretty fast anyway, and my experience of what does come in (largely from the Edinburgh Festival) suggests that in gener- al good reviews are given in precise co-rela- tion to the distance the critic has had to travel in order to write them. Wherever you are, good theatregoing.