5 JANUARY 1974, Page 17

Kenneth Hurren on the National socialist party

In the small controversy over Whether the association of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Tynan — as Director and Literary . Consultant, respectively — has or has not been beneficial to the National Theatre, my view has been generally, give or take the occasional Brechtian aberration and the vivacious assassination of a Greek tragedy or two, that it has. On the whole I mourn the passing of this hierarchy, mildly fearful of what may succeed it. I'm bound to say, though, that grief is somewhat assuaged by the final product of thecollaboration, a play called The Party, which was commissioned by Tynan from Trevor Griffiths and into which Olivier himself has been betrayed as an actor, and which is an enterprise that will surely dismay the admirers of all of them.

There can, of course, be no complaini, at the commissioning of the play: Griffiths is the kind of writer, seething with a rough and independent talent that the commercial theatre inevitably finds intimidating, whom the National Theatre is almost committed to encourage. His chosen subject matter — the dilemmas of the Political left — cannot have seemed unpromising either, at a time of failed gods and vanishing illusions, and there is, anyway, always room for a decent dialectical play tangling with the knottier is sues of the day. Unhappily the piece that turned up from Griffiths was not exactly the bold and challenging dramatic statement that might have been anticipated, full of flexing intellectual muscle.

The Party, I'm sorry to say, is not much more than a restatement of

conflicting left-wing attitudes, which might seem enormously stimulating at a Communist Party seminar, but which is likely to strike a less dedicated audience as a touch humdrum, especially as it flouts the humblest demands of the theatrical form (I am' not thinking of anything as sophis ticated as a plot) in a manner that might easily be confused with impertinence.

Obviously this was a manuscript which, commission or no commission, should have been regarded with the gravest suspicion, and somebody tactful delegated to explain to Griffiths that yes, well, hmm, it was, of course, wonderfully sincere and terribly literate, but that even National Theatre audiences don't altogether take for granted the urgent desirability of socialist revolution and may not be quite able to share his glumness over the indifferent prospects of its happening. There would probably have been no need to be downright brutal and discuss its shortcomings as a play, although it would be but the cruelty of kindness to divert Griffiths from an approach to the theatre that sometimes seems a malicious parody of the sort of left-wing propagandist drama that flourished at the Unity two or three decades ago.

Anyway, instead, the thing was handed over to the estimable John Dexter, whose production does everything possible for it, including tarting it up with a sexy prologue that I suspect was an afterthought to the main proceedings. "You have this pinko telly producer," I can imagine them telling Griffiths when he rolled up to the Old Vic from Salford or wherever, "and the big thing about him is his political ineffectualness, isn't it? So why not make him sexually ineffectual,too?A sort of symbol, see? Especially as you've made him so damn' successful in television, you've got to have him failing at something besides politics. And we've got this girl, Doran Godwin — remember she stripped off in Equus?—to play his wife. We'll open with them having a bedroom grapple, but he can't make it — okay? Those Marxist slogans you wanted to open with? Don't worry, Trey, old mate, you can still have them — we'll flash them on screens at either side of the bed."

This is indeed what happens (hands up those who were paying attention to the slogans and spot ted the spelling error), and more or less concludes the active part of the entertainment, to use the courtesy term. Thereafter the screens are used mostly to show

moving and still film of the students' revolt in Paris in May, 1968 — the time at which The Party takes place framing the stage discussion group, which takes the form of a meeting of members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party in the South Kensington flat of the television producer. Less than a dozen people are present, and since this may well be the entire membership of the party and since there is nothing to suggest that they enjoy enthusiastic support in the outside world, it seems a little bleak to criticise them by implication for merely talking while Cohn-Bendit's lot are actually doing something about the revolution.

The RSP's trouble, it emerges from the chat about Marx and Engels and Trotsky and Marcuse, is that they can't get together on revolutionary principles and priorities, but the choices before them are not sensationally seductive. The main speakers of the evening are a smooth lecturer from the LSE who summarises, not too succinctly, the revisionist position, and a veteran Trotskyite from the Clydeside shipyards who listens to this bland theorist with gloomy tolerance before erupting into a blistering affirmation of faith in a world proletarian revolution that has only so far been thwarted by the unsympathetic leadership of men like Stalin and, he hints darkly, by tne likes of the present company: "You bite the hand that feeds you," he accuses them aggrievedly, "but you will never bite it off." Olivier, who plays this old Glaswegian, makes a fine job of the speech, pacing it mesmerisingly and holding the house in his hand for an uninterrupted twenty minutes; but for all the vocal trickeries and for all the little mannerisms which both he and Denis Quilley (whose speech as the LSE man is quite as long) employ in their endeavours to get deeper than the skin of their parts, these are essentially platform rather than stage performances.

The rest of the assembled RSP members have nothing much to do, except for a drunken television playwright, made miserable — but also engagingly sardonic — by his success within a system he would destroy if he could lay off the sauce for ten minutes. He is played with falling-about relish by Frank Finlay. The host (Ronald Pickup) is also depressed by his subservience to the reactionary demands of the medium that feeds him; he doesn't visibly brood over his sexual performance (which en couraged my notion that this was a sprightly afterthought), but is awfully worried over whether he should lend his brother £300 to help him set up his own business and thus become a capitalist — eventually he does, and the hell with his misgivings. If I'd cared more about the question Griffiths was posing, I suppose I might have cared more that his answer was to throw up his hands in despair; but this is all merely the peripheral trivia of society, rather — to borrow a genial phrase from my colleague, Clive Gammon — like the sound of mice farting behind a distant skirting board.

Of recent arrivals in the West End, Why Not Stay for Breakfast? (Apollo) is another question that failed to ignite my concern; the woebegone musical Cockie (Vaudeville), offered as a tribute to a showman of legendary extravagance, is rather like paying a tribute to Bertram Mills with a flea circus; but the gay and gaudy Danny La Rue Show (Prince of Wales) is something to which I'll have to return more elaborately next week.