28 June 2010


In the garden under the sunshade on another 'perfect' summer Sunday morning. I am wearing black -- not in mourning; a white shirt would reflect on the laptop screen. But there may be sadness today because ... that's it -- a mere five weeks including previews and The Fantasticks has closed. We had a torrid valedictory party in the subterranean stalls bar last night after the show, bravely keeping our cool. 

Mind you, forty performances would be a respectable tally at the National Theatre in repertoire, but respectable was not the word for the size of our audiences in the Duchess's 479-seat auditorium. I have always admired John Peter, the critic for The Sunday Times, but, though there might have been others like him who wanted to bite off their kneecaps for distraction, over this last fortnight -- give or take the odd, oddly muted house -- the joyously responsive audiences were a great pleasure to play to.

The youth of these audiences made me suspect that, despite the gorgeous summer evenings, the drama schools were responding to the offer of complimentary tickets. Indeed, coming late out of the stage door one night, I met two RADA students and their young producer friend (blond, and handsome enough for a heartthrob leading juvenile himself). 'What are you doing here?' I asked them. 'Talking about the show' was their reply, so I joined the discussion, confessing that, for me and Paul Hunter, the somewhat surreal second act, apart from our first scene in it, was a chore. It has to be said that one distinguished actress, loaded with awards, told Clive Rowe that she liked the second act best, but that another, a sometime leading actress with the RSC, met Paul after the show and remarked that watching the second act was like being on drugs. It strikes me now that, not since I was smuggled on to the stage in Peter Brook's Seneca's Oedipus to join the final rave-up round the six-foot golden phallus, as a brass ensemble played 'Yes! We Have No Bananas', have I struggled so hard to lend inner conviction to the inexplicable. I should have told the students that: it's just the kind of eccentric reminiscence from a veteran actor that may be in short supply at drama school.

I did say I was amazed that Tom Jones, The Fantasticks' author and lyricist, had returned to the off-Broadway cast (playing my part of the Old Actor), thirty years after his first run at it, and not re-written the second half to give himself and his sidekick, Mortimer, a decent and meaningful exit from the play. I have to take blame or credit for contravening Hamlet's advice to the players (he is a prince and an amateur, so what does he know?): 'Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them'. I think Paul and I should have received cash in brown envelopes for our enhancement of our parts: There is a legendary credit in the 1929 Hollywood film starring Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks:

The Taming of the Shrew
William Shakespeare

Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor

I prefer to think of our extra-textual and -terrestrial contributions ('Dress the stage' is, after all, Henry's advice to Mortimer) not as overstepping the mark, but in biblical terms: 'And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain'. One of my fondest memories is of Paul, dressed in lace curtains and string vest as 'an Indian' (i.e Native American), with kitchen utensils rather than scalps hanging from his belt, applauding the theatrical death of El Gallo and then, realizing he is superfluous to requirements, dying himself. I still believe in the precipice he plummeted down, but, more than that, his clown was a real being, a being I never talked to in real life, but we communicated on stage and much of what happened between us was the result of his inspired improvisation -- rarely did we plan or amend in cold blood. I remember him describing the difficulties of our entrance from the box, and (even more difficult) our entrance into the box to get out of it, as 'not a precise science'. But from the moment we began to rehearse together, this entrance took on a mysterious life of its own and our relationship was forged through it, something we have to thanks Tom Jones for despite our Sam Taylor interpolations. Beckett and our double act have been mentioned more than once in the same breath.

Paul Hunter and myself in rehearsal.

As I woke up this morning, I still had to turn on Radio 3 to silence the insistent tunes from the show going round in my head, but the pure fresh memory of them remains, especially the moment I was arrested in the doorway of the rehearsal room and moved to tears by the opening, by Hadley Fraser's infinitely tender 'Try To Remember' and the cast poised in a perfect moment of infinite possibility. 

Sentiments for THE FANTASTICKS last night
 26th June 2010

Each Pierrot has his personal moon
Each Columbine and Harlequin and Pantaloon
Knows too well the lunar wax and wane
Triumph and disaster, loss and gain
They never lose a sense of glad surprise
That fortune, though it sinks,
Can also rise
That even as it fades away, the dream
Carries still a substance that can gleam.

Photo by Arthur Petherbridge, 2004

20 June 2010


I don't think I could have got through this last week were it not for CoQ-10.

British doctors tell you – have told me – that I was not suffering depletion of energy as a result of taking statins to lower cholesterol, and they have religiously insisted that I must take them. But there is research that suggests one's capacity to produce energy is, in fact, impaired or inhibited by statins, since Coenzyme Q-10 (a vital energy nutrient) and cholesterol share the same metabolic pathway. There are websites that will put it more scientifically than I can.

Luckily a friend put me on to CoQ-10 supplements and the chemist stocked them and within a week I was beginning to feel a difference. This last week I have been spending time by day in a recording studio and by night (plus two matinées) in the theatre: eight performances of The Fantasticks and twenty hours reading Jill Paton Walsh's new Peter Wimsey novel, The Attenbury Emeralds. Now reading into a microphone for over four and a half hours with very short tea breaks is quite demanding when there is nobody to share in the dialogue or narration of a book. To get it finished I read for seven hours on the last day, Friday, and would have walked, as I had done every other day, from Goodge Street to the Duchess Theatre had the rain not forced me to take the Tube part of the way. (The book, incidentally, is remarkable for chronicling a Tube journey that Lord Peter and Harriet take to Woodside Park in the northern suburbs.)

Emerging from the basement studio into the lovely sunlight of the street had been one of the treats of my daily routine up till then. The exercise was welcome and my head was full of echoes and images of 1950s London, the setting of the book, which played in counterpoint with the present as I dived into bookshops in Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court and finally passed through Covent Garden, where on one day, with wonderful spirit, a comedy quartet were playing Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.5, to which Chaplin executes a barber's routine in such perfect time in The Great Dictator.

View of the Strand in 1955

and of the London Underground in the same year.

Peter Wimsey is sixty in the book, so I am many more years too old for him than I was when I played the younger Peter on TV. His voice seems to come easily still; the most challenging thing was the danger of running out of women's voices. Two cockney ladies with vivid recollections of the Blitz, living in a postwar prefab under a Waterloo Railway viaduct, provided a welcome opportunity to throw into relief a plethora of variegated upper-class ladies, some of them relations of Wimsey – his mother, of course, and Harriet Vane and various cousins. Oddly, I found these women's emotional passages when they came easier to read and empathize with than the tiptoe badinage. The logistics of some of the sleuthing tired my brain, but it is very clever.

There are readers who go into a studio and read seamlessly with rarely a fluff: there were moments in my  final seven-hour stint with the odd break for coffee when I thought I was becoming catatonic. The director, Neil Gardner, will have a hefty editing job next week tidying me up and excising many fluffs and restarts. I got a Bronze Award for the last Walsh novel I read (A Presumption of Death). I hope for at least Silver this time, and would give half of it to Neil, who listened so skilfully and tactfully every breath of the way, and to the charming engineer.

It is uncanny how wonderfully Jill Paton Walsh has captured Dorothy L. Sayers's world, as it had been changed by the Second World War, and it was a fabulous excursion to be absorbed so intensely in that world.

In the evenings the bad notices had affected the size of our audiences at the Duchess, but not, on most nights, their delicious humour and enthusiasm. Quite a week – thanks, of course, to those pills I was talking about, and the creative research of my friend who discovered them.

13 June 2010


It can be no secret that, on the whole, the London critics have not taken to The Fantasticks. The Daily Mail was particularly ungracious, not to say offensive: what worker in the most mundane job would get away with confessing to falling asleep, but the Mail's man boasts of his inability to stay awake almost as a badge of honour, whilst taking chauvinistic side swipes at the Japanese involvement in the production. Unless I misconstrue his syntax, he attributes a line to my character ('Read on, Macduff!') which is, in fact, spoken by Clive Rowe – not easy to confuse us, I would have thought. But in spite of the critics' disparaging tone (and somnolence), I heard the usual spirited rendition of the overture coming over the Tannoy as I got ready on the evening after press night, and melted at the tender segue into 'Try To Remember'. Whoops and cheers and laughs were not in short supply that night either.

The dip in attendance the West End took tonight because of the World Cup provided us with a small but engaged audience, and, although some of the cast crowded round a television in the interval to see England moving towards a draw, not one of them showed the slightest sign of falling asleep on the job in the second act, or betraying their disappointment at the score.

I am reminded of my old colleague Edward Hardwicke who appeared with Peter Ustinov in the latter's play Photo Finish back in 1962. I had seen the play at a summer matinée at the Saville Theatre (now a West End cinema) two years before Edward and I met as supporting actors in Olivier's Othello at the NT. He told me that during Wimbledon fortnight there was a television installed just off stage so that they could keep an eye on the Championships, and both he and Ustinov had methods of conveying the score to one another when they made their entrances. I still remember Ustinov's rich comic stage presence in the play, with no hint of an off-stage life of 'Who's for tennis?'.

Talking of the show's Japanese connection, you will see over my dressing-room mirror a framed portrait of the Shinto goddess Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto who looks after actors. Next time I will tell you how she got me the job.

I am preparing to read Jill Paton Walsh's new Wimsey novel, The Attenbury Emeralds; recording begins tomorrow. It is fascinating to meet what seems to me the authentic Wimsey and Harriet just after the Second World War.

08 June 2010


Tuesday morning: I am determined to keep faith with my so-called weekly posting three days late, though I must leave in time to get to the physical warm-up for an odd matinée very soon. We have our Press Night tomorrow and so our Wednesday matinée is today if you follow. Some critics crept in last night, we were told, so why bother!  

The camera lies! It exaggerates contrast, so that my clown companion Paul Hunter, whose face your eyes would discern on stage at this moment in muted shades, is shrouded in underexposure, but he shows up in our struggle to get me into the 'doublet'.

Production photos taken from The Fantastickwebsite.

Our stage doorman, a mysterious American who, I gather, in the past has had personal dealings with the creators of The Fantasticks, Jones and Schmidt, gave me a strange note at the stage door as I left last night. It was from a lady telling me that she and her husband were in the bar of the Waldorf Hotel, just round the corner from the Duchess – would I care to join them so they could buy me a drink? Out of curiosity and a sense of duty – perhaps we were already acquainted, though the name didn't ring a bell – I popped into the quiet chic of the hotel, glancing at the glass-paned doors leading to the ballroom. They were shaded by translucent blinds, glowing with light from the silent interior. I did not think that the ghosts of Harriet Vane and her ardent suitor Lord Peter would, at that moment, be dancing beyond to the unheard strains of ‘The Haunted Ballroom’ or even 'Crazy Rhythm' as they did in this location twenty-four years ago – and might still be somewhere in the world on DVD. Rather, I was wondering whether it might be quicker to go home by bus or Tube; I still haven't decided.

The bar had no smiling couple so I left but, peeping over a wall into an alcove, I heard ‘Mr Petherbridge’, and a well-dressed lady extracted herself from a table and came round to hear me explain that I couldn't stay for a drink. She in turn explained that things had gone wrong and she hadn't seen the show but had been at a dinner with Lady Thatcher. So far, so odd. How was Lady T, I wondered. 'Well at eighty-four she still made the occasional sharp or amusing remark', the lady replied. She had obviously improved with age was my private subtext as I left, musing on the comedy of old age that I had played that night and – how time flies – must again soon. (I note the sun is coming out – a sure sign of a matinée day.) Poor dear, impoverished, forgetful Henry Albertson. A mental warm-up as well as a physical and vocal is needed so that Life doesn't imitate Art and I make his incompetence 'sharp and amusing'.

Yes, I really must go now, perhaps via St Pancras – or shall I be lordly and hail a taxi?