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A Notable Work of Theatre Discovery

Theatre History

P H Burton , Alun Books , November 28, 2017
Theatre History by P H Burton The rediscovery of Philip Burton's “Granton Street” has attracted considerable interest. Its culminating performance in Port Talbot was clearly an event of import for the town where its author was maker of one of Wales' acting greats. Lewis Davies was present for the performance and concluded “It is a play with a history and is of significance to the tradition of Welsh stage history.” Not only has Fluellen Theatre performed a service in bringing it to audiences of 2017 but it is also available in print. Once again it is a tiddler of an organisation that has done it, in this case Alun Books also of Port Talbot.

It is important not to over-praise “Granton Street”. It is a play written by a thirty-year old. It does not have the granite quality of Burton's contemporaries- O'Neill, for instance, who was writing in the same decade. Nor is it touched by modernity of style. It was written in response to a challenge and has the dramatic concentration of abiding by the classical unities of time and place. Its front plot is straight out of “Romeo and Juliet” but that does not matter. There are only seven plots anyway. Its background is politics. Indeed its exploration of politics has more depth than anything that has occurred on a Welsh stage in at least the last couple of decades.

Any artwork of depth is a mirror; each age looks to see itself within. “Granton Street” in 2017 is about the fraying of political tribes. One of the paradoxes of humanity is the politics-economics division. Politics, the order-making drive, is rooted in groups of similarity, familial, social, linguistic. At its extreme the clan displaces the state entirely. Economics, the creative object-making drive, is grouping by capability; social similarity takes secondary place. The two are in conflict and on June 23rd the first took precedence over the second. Fixity of party allegiance went and Westminster is a nine-party jostle.

Thus Burton's Mary, the daughter of the family, says to her mother “If I had had a vote I think I should have voted for Mr Granton.” Granton is the business-turned-candidate for the Conservatives. A young person expressing such a view could not feature in a present-day script. In the same vein the majority of young people voted in the 1980s for the governing party. Theatre of the time did not reflect this. The gap between the non-Conservative parties is also stark here. Will: “I can respect a Conservative, but a Liberal...He's a little man who wants to be a Conservative because it's respectable, but is prevented by what remains of his conscience.” John, the brother who has had benefit of university education, just laughs “where did you get that from?”

Burton has also caught the tensions within Labour. Their fiftieth anniversary this year has seen a revisit to the great social reforms of Roy Jenkins and Alice Bacon at the Home Office. The politics were bitter, the MP's of trades union background opposed utterly. Here the election canvasser Thomas observes of son Will: “He gets disappointed with the old stalwarts of the Miners' Federation...Of course, he's better educated than we are. He has read more and he talks about things we don't understand.”

Angela V John has provided a ten page introduction. It elegantly retraces the history of the play and its genesis. She reiterates the colossal impact that can come from an inspirational teacher and local presence. Like son John in his play Burton had benefit of a university education although the lecture theatres were of less allure than the real theatres of Cardiff. From his teaching position in Port Talbot he wrote and directed a vast pageant on the monastic history at Margam. The nascent BBC was a different corporate creature and a flood of radio scripts ensued. “Granton Street” itself was broadcast, albeit in truncated form, on February 13th 1937.

Her analysis of the play is rooted in a knowledge of time and place. Her context of the politics of Mountain Ash runs back to the by-election occasioned by the death of Keir Hardie. Burton also had as a child a fine singing voice and had performed for Lord and Lady Aberdare and guests at Duffryn House. The second half of his life was a transformation, spent at the epicentre of the theatre of the USA. His friends ran the span of O'Casey, Coward, Dorothy Parker, Bobby Kennedy.

The appearance of “Granton Street” in print courtesy of Alun Books has had a particular genesis. Had Parthian not gone ahead with “the Actors' Crucible” (reviewed here November 13th 2015) it is improbable that Angela V John's curiosity would been fired. Thanks are due to Christian Alderson of North Carolina who holds copyright for the Philip Burton estate. The historian Paul O’Leary comes from Mountain Ash and aided with expert knowledge. Peter Whitebrook, once theatre critic for “the Scotsman”, provided encouragement.

Early 2018 hosts an event for those who have an interest. At the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea on Saturday 17th February Angela V John will be talking about the author. Fluellen Theatre will be reading from “Granton Street” and there will also be excerpts from Philip Burton’s writings on Shakespeare. The play will most likely be seen again later in the year.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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