Busy designer Tim Meacock opened two productions over the weekend: Salad Days at Riverside and The Making of Moo at the Orange Tree.
Both shows, in different ways, are 1950s classics, but there’s nothing remotely retro about Tim, who is like a modern beatnik, shabby and bright and long-haired and devoted to his wheelchair-bound partner Andrew who works for the Arts Council.
He’s turned the Riverside into a big expanse of green parkland where Varsity graduates, tramps, civil servants and policemen all cavort nuttily to the insidiously charming music of a magic piano, and he’s surrounded it (and them) with giant yellow drapes.
It’s all a delight — I’ve loved the show ever since I choreographed my Oxford college production — but it felt a bit slow, though Tim told me at the Orange Tree (he’d just arrived from the Saturday matinee) that the pace has picked up prodigiously.
Anyway, my choreography wasn’t a patch on Quinny Sacks’s for the current version, which is presented by the resourceful small opera company Tete a Tete.
I’d been alerted to it by the opera translator Amanda Holden, who played Jane in my college jape, so we went along together, even though we’ve always said “we wouldn’t look back.”
As the audience also included my Old Etonian chum Adrian Webster, who was “up” at Trinity with us and who now runs his own travel book publishing company, and a crowd of punters who looked as though they’d been, well, punting, quite recently, the whole evening took on a sort of surreal nostalgia haze.
Not surprisingly, half the audience sat at tables sipping Pimms. The other half looked like refugees from college and amateur revivals down the years.
There are no great surprises in Salad Days, certainly nothing to compare with the shock of The Making of Moo, a bracingly blasphemous comedy about a blood-curdling new religion in the colonies that opened at the Royal Court in 1957.
For this, Tim has designed a conventional colonial setting of wicker chairs and carpets exchanged, in the second act, for bovine skulls on staffs, a pontifical throne covered in a striped tarpaulin and a couple of mobile slabs where the visiting lawyers are stabbed and sacrificed at vespers.
This show awakened mixed memories for Michael Billington, who directed a production at his Oxford college in 1960 (“inept,” he says it was) buoyed up by Tynan’s recommendation that this play was the first outright attack on religion on the British stage.
His Old English tutor resigned in protest, having been overruled by the head of the college, the great historian Alan Bullock, when he tried to stop Michael dead in his tracks.
Billington found himself briefly famous, splashed all over the tabloid press, but he soon recovered his poise and his trademark lack of notoriety. The tutor, I’m told, died recently without ever having been welcomed back into the fold at St Cats.
Critics harking back to their salad days, when they were green in judgement, if not exactly cold in blood, are a bit of a menace at the moment. Ian Shuttleworth does it quite often, and Mark Shenton’s been telling us about his producing chops at Cambridge.
But at least it’s preferable to critics slagging each other off, which has been a recent and regrettable development on the internet blogs, in diary stories in print, and in interval conversation. I’ve never known anything like it before.
Now it’s got too personal, with Tim Walker of the Sunday Telegraph allegedly making size-ist remarks about Shuttleworth (though he doesn’t name him) in response to a concerted campaign of name-calling and jeering by Shuttleworth and others.
Ignorance and stupidity have long been the prerogatives of all theatre critics, so I don’t really see the point of getting all aerated about someone who is just a bit more blatantly ignorant and stupid than is usual.
And critics are adept at getting hold of the wrong end of any stick that’s proffered anyway, that’s part of the job description.
One colleague did me down twice in one sentence the other night, suggesting I’d never liked Blood Brothers and that I thought that there should be a best new musical category (as there used to be) as well as a best musical one in the Standard awards.
Neither remark relates to anything I’ve ever said or written, but only the first stung as I alone among all the current critics attended and wrote rhapsodically about the first ever performance of Blood Brothers at the Liverpool Playhouse way back in January 1983, long before Bill Kenwright re-launched the still running revival in 1988.
And now, suddenly, it’s getting slightly creepy five star reviews all over again, as if by magic, or at least the direct intervention of canny Kenwright, who’s always gone out of his way to cultivate the critics when it suits him.