28 JUNE 1963, Page 14


Shot in the Arm

By DAVID PRYCE-JONES Oh What a Lovely War.

(Wyndham's.)—Alfie. (Mer- maid.)—Hughie. (Duchess.)

—The Physicists. (Aldwych.) SENTIMENTALITY these days is felt to be a kind of Bitter Lemon of the emotions, a soft drab juice which needs to be added to the strong stuff to make it drinkable. Yet sentimentality is the effec- tive centre of Oh What a Lovely Wat, from the pierrot costumes (doomed youths smiling in fancy dress) to the three-time tunes : `If you want the old battalion,' Goodbye--ee.' Music-hall treatment perhaps, but all the more moving for it, because this is the direct response, and it doesn't need anything else to bring it out.

It has lost some of this simplicity in the transfer from Stratford. The bigger stage has produced a bigger sense of occasion, and so the production now does a lot of underlining, of making quite sure that the sillies in the front rows are going to get the point. I can't see why Avis Bunnage's number, make a man of you,' has now got to have a parade of background tarts all naughtily showing us what the words mean. Nor why Fanny Carby can't do `Itchykoo' by herself as she did so nicely at Stratford. Glamorisation has meant vulgarisation.

There are gains, however, in excellent new posters, and the trip to Paris brought home 'Adieu la Vie,' striking exactly the note of hopeless period gaiety and waste and sadness, which is what Oh What a Lovely War is about. It doesn't really have a pacifist message, by the way—it's too clever for that. It's a representation of how it all happens, and goes on happening, and of how it somehow gets accepted because nobody can stop it. If it were more didactic, one wouldn't come away from the theatre with the same feeling of energy, with exhilaration instead of the usual exhaustion. It seems invidious to notice single performances in such a homogeneous whole, but Victor Spinetti's acting and miming, qualities, his speed above all, impressed once again.

Sentimentality is only one of the virtues which Alfie lacked : any injection of red or white corpuscles would have been welcome if it could turn this lymph into blood. Alfie is a fictional compendium of masculine vices. Life is a fiddle for him, but so, more importantly, are women. He seduces a good many. End of play. Emancipation may have freed women from chastity, but it also

liberated their tongues and right arms from the conventional swing. Alfie lives in an astoundingly Victorian world, in spite of his contemporary bluster.

John Neville is a plausible Alfie, all thin good looks and expensive suits. The action involves his either standing in a spotlight at the front of the stage explaining what his intentions are, or moving backstage to demonstrate them on a bed or a couch. Once he gets to a hospital bed, but screens are provided. Listening unduly to the words, however, I came to mind the inconsisten- cies of John Neville's accent. He is betrayed by the difficult long 'o' and 'a,' while diphthongs like 'enjoy' put Alfie right back into the West End where, of course, he doesn't belong.

Technically this is a much flimsier play than Bill Naughton's All in Good Time, which is run- ning concurrently. That depends simply on a revolving stage, but at least the words and the action work together. Here the words are very slight, and otherwise Ale is persuading us that his 'sneezes in the loins' are incessant and pointless. We believe it.

Hughie is one of the last plays O'Neill wrote, found among his papers after his death. It is in one act, and indeed the three pieces put together here lack the expected Wagnerian length. Instead a biographical theme of sorts has been introduced into the production : in practice this means Burgess Meredith standing to one side of the stage in order to give us a few introductory clues.

In the Zone stands for O'Neill's obsession with the sea, that theatre where he saw men as heroes, and where small gestures could take on the importance of eternal postures. Before Breakfast shows us the other side, the drinking, the rackety Bohemian existence of self-doubt and knuckling under painfully to society. Hughie is really O'Neill at his best, as a talker, a teller of seedy tales. A failed gambler tries to pass his loneliness off on to the night clerk of a hotel by inventing a fantasy glamour about his life. According to the Gelbs' massive book about O'Neill, this play was intended for an unconventional stage prOduction of some unspecified kind. It does not receive it, for Burgess Meredith plays it straight, giving it an enthusiasm which does not perhaps accord with the gambler's feeble cockiness.

'God I love dynamos, you don't need to think, you almost get the secret,' says an O'Neill character. 'Secrets' (even in dynamos) are the key to the evening, those mysterious O'Neill secrets which are -always just round the corner, just obscured, behind the trembling veil which it takes a mind clearer than his to rip aside. In a, way, Hughie's strongest feature is that you don't need to think. It can speak for itself.

The Physicists is back at the Aldwych for a further eight performances, and I recommend anybody who missed it to take this opportunity. Not because it represents a searching examination into one of the essential problems of our time, , etc. Seen like that, it is horribly banal, just - another sample of egghead primitivism. If know-i‘ ledge, scientific or other, is not to be pursued for , its own sake, it is back to woad for us all. I prefer to look at it as a continuation of Durrenmatt's anxiety about old people, whom he seems, to regard as the inevitable repositories of the world's wickedness. Age means power, money, the control . of justice, acquisition, as in The Visit, The Deadly Game and now again in the three dotty scientists and their old invincible keeper, Doktor von Zahnd, who is excellently played by Elizabeth Spriggs to bring out the bland perversion of mind and body.