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Absorbing Addition to 20th Century Gay Theatre Record

Theatre History

Deborah Philips “And This Is My Friend Sandy” , Methuen Drama , July 27, 2023
Theatre History by Deborah Philips “And This Is My Friend Sandy” The Trafalgar Studios in its last full winter before the pandemic staged “Coming Clean” by Kevin Elyot. The first production in 1982 had won the Samuel Beckett Award. The revival thirty-seven years on stood up well, its theme of constancy in love a universal.

The arc of gay theatre looked settled, a current that ran broadly in line with legal reform. The stepping stones ran “The Killing of Sister George” (1964) “Staircase” (1966), “The Boys in the Band” (1968), the founding of Gay Sweatshop (1975). Simon Callow performed in Martin Sherman's “Passing By” (1974) and a revision of Christopher Hampton's “Total Eclipse” (1981).

But categories in history have a habit of unfixing themselves. The first speech selected for “The Methuen Drama Book of Queer Monologues” was written in 1907. The Playhouse Theatre, a beguiling venue beneath the railway arches of Charing Cross, secured a license from the Lord Chamberlain's office to perform J R Ackerley's “the Prisoners of War” in 1925.

Critic Nicholas de Jongh called it “the first twentieth century play to deal with homosexual desire.” The Playhouse Theatre went on to produce Keith Winter's “the Rats in Winter” in 1933.

The Playhouse Theatre is at the centre of Deborah Philips' absorbing study of Sandy Wilson. Constructed in 1863 on the site of the old Hungerford Market the live venue became a cinema in 1910. It was not used for performance again until 1946 when the Players Theatre moved there from Albemarle Street.

“And This Is My Friend Sandy” adroitly conflates three subjects: the life of the composer, the topography of gay London and the place of “the Boy Friend” in theatre history. It was certainly the “flagship British musical of the 50s”. Even the acerbic Kenneth Tynan termed it “a sly affectionate tribute to the decade.”

A later critic Sheridan Morley wrote that its “brilliance lay in its passion for historical accuracy and its understanding that small is beautiful...a perfect miniature period piece.” A chapter is given over to its later mangling by Ken Russell when taken to film. A tribute to the 1920s was crammed with Busby Berkeley-style formations. The book's chapter on the film takes a quotation for its heading “A Walpurgisnacht of Self-Indulgence”. Wilson called it “a baffling experience...a mess: a wilful and at times incomprehensible confusion”.

The author is an emeritus professor from Brighton University with a string of books on twentieth century popular culture to her name. The context of the era is evoked in much colour. The years of conscription are well known as a spur to British music culture. Stan Tracey was once to be seen as a teenager in bandanas and bell-bottom trousers in a fake Gypsy band. Deborah Philips captures succinctly the flavour of the wartime entertainers in uniform.

Sandy Wilson edited a newspaper innocently titled “Camp Characters”. Spike Milligan, Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams all had their first experience of performance in the Armed Services. Drag, Philips writes, was “a staple of troop entertainment”. Although not in her book variety shows with cross-dressing performances were a regular in the prison camp films of post-war British cinema. The first was Ealing Studios' “The Captive Heart” in 1946.The tradition received its most famous tribute in theatre in the character Acting Captain Terri Dennis in Peter Nichols' 1977 “Privates on Parade”.

The book's second chapter is titled “Mapping Theatreland: Soho, the West End and homosexual law reform”. That Soho stood out from a grey and depressed post-war country was described by W J McQueen Pope in his “An Indiscreet Guide to Theatreland” of 1947:

“It is a little world of its own, a city within a city, a state within a state, peopled entirely by the smaller and lesser fry of the Theatrical profession...They are of all sorts of shape and size, but the unmistakable mark of the entertainment world is upon them...they are the showfolk, the dwellers in the land of make-believe, which, so often, also leads to Poverty Corner...Outwardly the faces were brave, the appearance beyond reproach. A little flamboyant perhaps, but clean and spotless...”

Bars of Soho were refashioned as private clubs to elude the restrictions on licensed drinking hours. The owners of gay clubs were often ex-servicemen. “Far from being a furtive sort of person”, wrote Daniel Farson, “he was usually an upright gentleman, middle-aged and enthusiastic, neatly dressed...frequently the owner had been a major or a naval commander and sported a tie to that effect.”

In 1951 a guidebook “the Good Time Guide to London” wrote of Soho: “you will find dark alleys and cul-de-sacs, third-rate night clubs and dingy a cafés, all the traditional settings for a lurid detective story”. A later writer, Frank Mort in 1996, was more expansive: “excessive drinking bouts, public displays of bad behaviour and chance sexual encounters...were the rules of the game.”

Paradoxically the 1920's came to be looked back upon as a time of greater tolerance. Although it was the decade of the Wolfenden Report (1957) in 1955 convictions for gross indecency were seven times greater than the figures for the pre-war period. The defections of Maclean and Burgess had rocked authority to its roots. The Home Office set up its Committee on Sexual Offences in 1954 and focussed its attention specifically on Soho and the West End.

Theatre was dominated by Novello, Rattigan, Coward and “Binkie” Beaumont who would convene at the Ivy. Beaumont had grown up in Cardiff and Novello was once David Ivor Davies from Cowbridge Road East. The result was that audiences divided. Those in the know could read the coded gay subject matter in plays like “Separate Tables” (1954). “The Pink Room” by Rodney Ackland was produced at the Lyric Hammersmith and largely financed by Rattigan. To see Blanche McIntyre's fine production in 2014 of Emlyn Williams' “Accolade” (1950) it is astonishing that the censor had let it pass.

A brief afterword reveals the genesis of the book. Researched before the pandemic and written in lockdown it marries the personal and the scholarly. Philips' mother, Ursula Harby, had served in the Entertainment Corps in North Africa and acted at the Players Theatre. She had been the Wicked Fairy at the Players against Hattie Jacques' Good Fairy. The score of “the Boy Friend” had been a regular on the record player in the family home. This personal connection is invisible in the text itself which is fuelled by scholarly discipline. The book's preparation included visits to that treasure trove of British theatre, the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. The Sandy Wilson papers are held there and are economically quoted.

As a critic from an academic setting Philips touches on the critical treatment of Wilson and his peers. But she eschews theory; the writers cited include the pragmatically inclined Dan Rebellato, Adrian Wright, Dominic Shellard. Crispness is the guiding principle and it is a good one. A concise 158 pages of text are followed by 24 pages of notes, index and bibliography. The 162 references provide a guide to further reading and the text is supported by illustrations of the period.

This is a valuable addition to theatre's history of the mid-twentieth century. It is unlikely to be surpassed.

A guide to the sequence “Theatre History Book” can be read below 12th August 2021.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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