Barry Humphries

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  • The Comedy Theatre: Melbourne's most intimate playhouse (Part 4)

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    In Part 4 of the Comedy Theatre story, RALPH MARSDEN takes a look at the plays and performers that graced the stage of the Melbourne playhouse during the period 1960 to 1986.

    Celebrated French entertainer, Maurice Chevalier, interrupting a revival of his American film career, starred in a one man show for a month from 24 February 1960. The Phillip Street Revue, from Sydney’s Phillip Street Theatre, ran just over a month from 21 May, preceding Cyril Ritchard and Cornelia Otis Skinner in The Pleasure of His Company, a comedy by Samuel Taylor and Ms Skinner, which began its nine-week run on 2 July. The year ended with two serious plays: an AETT production of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage and Clifford Odets’ Winter Journey, which starred Googie Withers and ran two months to 25 January 1961. Then came Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife, also with Withers, until 29 March.

    17 June 1961 brought that uncommon Comedy attraction—a musical—Irma La Douce, which had flopped in Sydney but ran here for over four months. This was followed by an even rarer bird—a successful Australian musical: The Sentimental Bloke, with book and score based on C.J. Dennis’s poems by Albert Arlen and his wife, Nancy Brown with Lloyd Thomas, which also ran for over four months from 4 November.

    Highlights of 1962 included an AETT production of The Miracle Worker, British actor Robert Speaight in A Man for All Seasons and—much lighter and more successful—Under the Yum Yum Tree, a comedy which played for over two months from 8 August. 9 November brought back Googie Withers in Ted Willis’s Woman in a Dressing Gown, which ran until 19 December. This was revived for a few weeks from 30 April 1963, following famed French mime, Marcel Marceau, who had been appearing for most of that month.

    Who’ll Come A-Waltzing, a local comedy by Peggy Caine, ran six weeks from 22 May 1963, followed by another six weeks for British comic actress Irene Handl in Goodnight Mrs. Puffin, which was also revived late in November. Another fondly remembered English comedienne was Joyce Grenfell who brought her own show here for a few weeks from 29 August, followed by Muriel Pavlow, Derek Farr and Dermot Walsh in the comedy Mary, Maryfor eight weeks from 18 September.

    1963’s most distinguished visitor was Sir John Gielgud, who performed his Shakespearian compendium, Ages of Man, between 9 and 28 December. A completely different but equally celebrated performer was American comedian Jack Benny, who played the Comedy between 16 and 26 March 1964. That year was also the quatro-centenary of Shakespeare’s birth, celebrated here by The First 400 Years—excerpts from the most famous plays starring Googie Withers and Keith Michell for three weeks from 23 April.

    A couple of comedies—Never Too Late and Rattle of a Simple Man—the latter with local husband and wife John Meillon and June Salter—then preceded Britain’s Michael Flanders and Donald Swann in their famous revue, At the Drop of a Hat, for a month from 29 August. Go Tell It On the Mountain, an all negro folk-song entertainment, saw out the year and made way for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre from 16 February 1965.

    British actor Robert Flemyng starred in Difference of Opinion for two months from 25 March 1965, then came Googie Withers and Richard Wordsworth in Beekman Place, followed by the bare breasted Guinean dancers of Les Ballets Africains, and then another Britisher, Robin Bailey, in another drama, A Severed Head. That most original of all Australian entertainers, Barry Humphries, was given his first hometown season at a major theatre in Excuse I, which began a three-week run on 20 September and proved popular enough for a three week revival from 5 February 1966.

    Other familiar faces in 1966 included Googie Withers, now partnered by Ed Devereaux, in a new local play, Desire of the Moth, from 5 March, and Irene Handl in a comedy-thriller, Busybody, from 16 April. The Melbourne premiere of the musical The Boys from Syracuse began on 8 June, followed by returns of Les Ballets Africains on 3 August and Joyce Grenfell on 31 August. Fresh attractions included the Phillip Street revue, A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a Good Lie Down, doing seven weeks from 20 September and Cactus Flower, an American comedy with a local cast, which closed just over a month after its 19 November opening.

    More successful was Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, with Keith Petersen and Frederick Parslow, beginning a two-month run on New Year’s Eve. 11 March 1967 brought a much bigger hit with the British musical, Half a Sixpence, starring Scottish actor Mark McManus. This ran four months and was followed by a British comedy, There’s a Girl in My Soup, with expatriate Ron Randell (ten weeks from 14 July) and another musical, Man of La Mancha, with Charles West and Suzanne Steele, whose first four-month run here was later topped in the show’s numerous revivals.

    British comic actor Alfred Marks starred in his London success, Spring and Port Wine, for two months from 10 February 1968. Black Comedy and White Liars, two Peter Shaffer one-acters, made an unexpectedly modernist Comedy attraction for three weeks from 23 May, and from 15 July Barry Humphries was back for a month in Just a Show. Also of note that year was a South African musical, Wait a Minim, which ran seven weeks from 26 September and the British musical satire, Oh, What a Lovely War, in a St Martin’s production that ran 25 nights from 23 November.

    Musicals again predominated in 1969: a revival of The Boy Friend, directed by its author, Sandy Wilson, ran for three months from 15 February, but Your Own Thing, a ‘mod’ musicalisation of Twelfth Night, flopped badly after four weeks from 7 June. More successful was the bawdy British Canterbury Tales, which did ten weeks from 16 August and was revived for a couple of months from 31 December. Prior to this Googie Withers and Alfred Sandor co-starred in Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, which did seven weeks from 5 November and was also revived for a month from 9 May 1970. Another month-long revival from 1 July 1970 was The Secretary Bird, a comedy with Patrick McNee, which had originally played at the Princess.

    22 October 1970 was the advertised opening for Anthony Shaffer’s comic thriller Sleuth, starring Patrick Wymark, a formidable presence in several British TV series. Just 48 hours before this, however, the 44-year-old Wymark died suddenly in his Melbourne hotel suite and the season was cancelled. Entrepreneur Harry M. Miller rushed in a revival of The Boys in the Band to salvage the booking, but it was not until 30 June 1971 that Sleuth had its Melbourne premiere with Stratford Johns, also from British TV, now the star.

    Sleuth ran for two months and was followed by another Miller attraction, a British Army drama called Conduct Unbecoming, with English pop singer Mark Wynter, which closed exactly a month after its 9 September opening. Another flop which opened on 8 January 1972 was The Jesus Christ Revolution, a locally-penned religious rock opera. Backed by erratic Sydney entrepreneur Harry Wren, this closed after three weeks, leaving its cast stranded and unpaid.

    In September 1971 J.C. Williamson had amalgamated with Perth entrepreneur Michael Edgley to form a subsidiary company, Williamson–Edgley Theatres. Their first show at the Comedy was the farce Move Over Mrs Markham, with British stars Honor Blackman and Michael Craig, from 3 March 1972. Harry H. Corbett, another popular British TV, performer, followed them on 6 May in Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which also played two months. Googie Withers returned on 12 July in an MTC company with Dennis Olsen, Dinah Shearing and Frank Thring in The Cherry Orchard and An Ideal Husband. But the most popular performer that year was British film and TV comic Sidney James, who had a ten-week run in the farce The Mating Season from 30 September. The new management also installed bars and additional toilets in the theatre during the year.

    Robert Morley, back for just 28 days in Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves, from 15 January, reopened the Comedy in 1973. Other highlights included Sir Michael Redgrave in John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father (six weeks from 14 March) and another ten-week MTC season from 12 September, beginning with Alex Buzo’s Batman’s  Beach Head and ending with Lewis Esson’s 1912 comedy The Time Is Not Yet Ripe. In between came more familiar Comedy fare: The Love Game, a British farce with Bernard Cribbins, and Suddenly At Home, a thriller with Michael Craig.

    26 February 1974 brought more of the same with Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards in Big, Bad Mouse but an Old Tote Theatre Company production of David Williamson’s What If You Died Tomorrow?was followed by an immaculate English National Theatre production of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 comedy The Front Page on 14 May. Leslie Phillips in The Man Most Likely To... and a fortnight by Marcel Marceau preceded Barry Humphries in At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen It. This did well during its eight weeks from 21 August and was followed by As It’s Played Today, a contemporary satire written and acted by John McCallum, which did not.

    Patrick Cargill in the self-explanatory Two and Two Make Sex played eight weeks from 14 February 1975 and on 23 April came Edward Woodward and Michele Dotrice in Alan Owen’s The Male of the Species. Scapino, a farce adapted from Moliere, with Barry Crocker, arrived on 19 June then, after a month’s darkness, came Derek Nimmo on 5 September in Why Not Stay for Breakfast?, another farce which stayed for ten weeks.

    Very funny British drag duo Patrick Fyffe and George Logan as Hinge and Bracket became the first night-time attraction of 1976 from 28 April. Hard on their high heels came a fortnight by Luisillo and his Spanish Dancers—their first season here since the early 1960s and their last ever at the Comedy. Eric Dare presented Lindsay Kemp and friends in Flowers, their striking paean to Jean Genet for a month from 18 June. Neil Simon’s Same Time Next Year brought back more conservative audiences for six weeks from 30 July; ditto Susannah York and Barrie Ingham in Private Lives for a month from 15 October. This was to be the last of the old style in-house productions by J.C. Williamson’s at the Comedy, for The Firm, which had been plagued by continual losses throughout the 1970s, now faced drastic reorganisation and reductions.

    Apart from a daytime panto in January, the theatre was left dark until 16 March 1977 when English husband and wife, John Thaw and Sheila Hancock, starred in four Michael Frayn two-handers under the title The Two of Us. ‘J.C. Williamson’s may be dead but the malady that afflicted it apparently lingers on,’ The Age commented, although it was a little kinder to the equally conventional The Pleasure of His Company, whose starry cast included Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, David Langton, Stanley Holloway and Carol Raye. Originally scheduled for two weeks from 25 April, it was extended an extra week when the cast was stranded by an air traffic controllers’ strike, and also returned for a couple of weeks late in November.

    The next attraction, a stage spin-off from British TV, was Doctor in Love, which ran six weeks from 14 June and was most notable as marking English entrepreneur and future owner of the theatre, Paul Dainty’s first association with the Comedy. Mike Stott’s comedy, Funny Peculiar, followed this for seven weeks then, on 1 October, came an Old Tote production of Patrick White’s Big Toys for five weeks. Year’s end brought the musical compilation Side By Side Sondheim, which ran eight weeks from 24 November.

    An early highlight of 1978 was the 28 February opening of a company from England’s Chichester Festival Theatre. Headed by Keith Michell and including Roy Dotrice, Nyree Dawn Porter, Nigel Stock and June Jago, they appeared in Othello and The Apple Cart. But the most important event for the Comedy itself was its auction by J.C. Williamson’s on 2 May. An Age report of 22 April noted that the theatre now seated 1008, was valued for rating purposes at over $1 million and that ‘Land tax on the site for a single owner would be about $30 000 a year, but it might be possible for an owner to make $100 000 a year in rent from it if it could be booked almost continually.’ The Comedy was passed in for $800 000 and sold for this sum in June to the Paul Dainty Corporation while Love Thy Neighbour, another Dainty attraction from British TV, was playing.

    Barry Humphries’ Isn’t It Pathetic At His Age? proved his most popular yet here with a nine week extended run from 24 July 1978, and from 1 to 25 November Norwegian film actress Liv Ulmann starred in Chekhov’s The Bear and Cocteau’s The Human Voice. Googie Withers and John McCallum returned as a duo for the first time in nearly twenty years in William Douglas Home’s The Kingfisher on 29 November. They enjoyed a run extended to 3 February 1979 but the series of other recent overseas successes with local casts that followed—Dracula, Bedroom Farce, Deathtrap, P.S. Your Cat Is Dead—all failed to equal this.

    The acclaimed Philippe Genty puppet company from France stayed for three weeks from 7 August 1979, then came Deborah Kerr in The Day After the Fair for six weeks from 11 September, and three weeks of Roger Hall’s Flexitime from 30 November—a few months after its first success at the Alexander Theatre at Monash University.

    Robert Morley, making his final Comedy appearance, failed to draw in Alan Bennett’s cerebral drama The Old Country, in February 1980, and the rest of that year showed something of the same patchiness that had afflicted the theatre in its last years under Williamson’s control. There was variety aplenty however: Spike Milligan was here late in April, and Derek Nimmo in the farce Shut Your Eyes and Think of England ran for seven weeks from 10 May. Vincent Price impersonated Oscar Wilde in the compilation Diversions and Delights for a fortnight from 28 July; Robyn Archer revived A Star is Torn for three weeks from 13 August; Jeannie Lewis starred in Pam Gems’ Piaf for seven weeks from 20 September and 10 November brought An Evening with Dave Allen.

    Neil Simon’s musical two-hander They’re Playing Our Song, with John Waters and Jacki Weaver, opened on 9 January 1981 and played until 9 May, giving the Comedy its longest run in years. After this came Robert Coleby in the comedy of quadriplegia. Whose Life Is It Anyway? for six weeks from 13 May, then Warren Mitchell and Gordon Chater in The Dresser for five weeks from 8 July. A Sydney Theatre Company production of the musical Chicago, with Nancye Hayes and Geraldine Turner, scored the second longest run of the year with ten weeks from 5 September, and 23 November brought three weeks of Danny La Rue in Revue.

    The Rocky Horror Show, with Daniel Abineri as Rocky and Stuart Wagstaff as Narrator, returned for fifteen weeks from 7 January 1982 and became one of the Comedy’s staple revival attractions over the next few years. Two flops followed, however—One Mo’ Time (‘the great New Orleans musical’) and a musicalised version of Candide. From 9 September the Comedy was screening films for the first time in over forty years, beginning with a revival double bill of The Life of Brian and The Elephant Man. Live theatre returned on 22 November when Nell Dunn’s Steaming was first produced here; although it initially ran only a month it enjoyed three revivals over the next eight years.

    Googie Withers and John McCallum in Maugham’s The Circle got 1983 off to a good start with an eight-week run from 18 January but the rest of the year provided very few highlights: Michael Frayn’s comedy Noises Off with Carol Raye, Stuart Wagstaff and Barry Creyton in the cast, began a five-week run on 20 April—and a revival of Born Yesterday with Jacki Weaver also did five weeks from 12 October.

    New Year’s Eve brought the Rice–Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which drew until 10 March 1984. Gordon Chater’s brilliant solo performance of The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin was revived for a month from 16 March and two new plays—Mark Medoff’s drama of deafness, Children of a Lesser God, and Donald McDonald’s local comedy, Caravan, were both AETT subsidised attractions in the second half of the year.

    A Withers–McCallum vehicle which did less well than usual, although it was specially written for them, was Ted Willis’s Stardust, which managed only five weeks from 3 January 1985. A ‘monster musical’, The Little Shop of Horrors, followed for six weeks from 26 February and on 10 August came another musical, Stepping Out, with Rowena Wallace, Carol Raye, Collette Mann and Nancye Hayes, which did business for eight weeks. British TV comics Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones arrived for a week in Alas the World on 15 November and last up for the year was a short series of concerts by Renee Geyer—another attempt to fill the increasing gaps between more orthodox attractions.

    Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs was the first show of 1986, doing six weeks from 1 February. Later came Alan Bleasdale’s vasectomy comedy, Having a Ball…!, also for six weeks from 11 June, and A Coupla White Chicks, with Rowena Wallace and Collette Mann, which ran a month from 13 August.

    To be continued