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A new play by Terry Johnson (1998), Director Terry Johnson, Set Designer William Dudley, Lighting Designer Simon Corder.
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Filming's not as glamorous as it's cracked up to be. It's a bit of a miserable business if your caravan leaks, your co-star's a manic depressive, and those younger women aren't so young any more.
Carrying on in the great tradition of British comedy, Terry Johnson's new play takes some familiar faces and gets a bit familiar with them.
Terry Johnson's production of The London Cuckolds was seen earlier this year at the Lyttelton. His other recent work includes writing Hysteria and writing/directing Dead Funny and Insignificance.
LYTTELTON Theatre previewed 4 September, opened 21 September 1998, closed 16 January 1999
Extracts from the reviews:
"There are a few puritanical killjoys who have raised their eyebrows and sniffed disparagingly at the idea of the National Theatre doing a play about the Carry On films. Isn't it all a bit vulgar, a bit puerile, for Britain's flagship theatre to be taking on such sleaze? A plague on such prigs and prudes. It's a real pleasure to report that Terry Johnson's play is every bit as vulgar, every bit as puerile as any fan of low comedy could possibly wish. There are more terrible puns and leering innuendoes here than seems indecently possible. But as Johnson showed in his masterpiece, Dead Funny, it is possible to combine wild laughter with deep pain, and though this new piece isn't in quite the same league, it is often powerfully affecting. These days the Carry On films are the subject of National Film Theatre retrospectives and media studies courses, and it's not quite as silly as it sounds. The films provide a real insight into British popular culture and character, and in particular our peculiar, embarrassed attitude to sex, brilliantly identified by George Orwell in his essay on saucy seaside postcards, of which the Carry On films are a direct descendant. Things may be different in the bedroom, but when the British talk about sex they tend to view it in an essentially comic light, and this strikes me as a notably sane attitude. Watching President Clinton giving his evidence one just longed for the great fruity rasp of Sid James's laugh when the matter of the cigar came up - if you'll forgive the Carry On-ish double entendre. It would have brought an irreverent blast of common sense to the absurd preceedings. The play is set in Sid James's caravan-cum-dressing room at Pinewood Studios and follows three of the team - Sid himself, Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor - from the making of the great Carry On Cleo in 1964 to the final Carry On Emmanuelle in 1978, when the pictures had begun to seem dated and stale. Part of the pleasure of the evening is watching such fine impersonations of well-loved stars. In looks, voice and bubbly personality, Samantha Spiro is uncannily like the young Barbara Windsor, brassily absurd but exuding an irresistible generosity of spirit. Geoffrey Hutchings hasn't quite got the wrinkled walnut face of Sid James, but he gets the cackling lechery off to a tee, while Adam Godley superbly captures the swoopingly camp disdainful voice, the amazing facial mugging and, above all, the corrosive misanthropy and self-contempt of Kenneth Williams. The first half is like a Carry On film in itself, as libidinous Sid tries to get off with a succession of women including Barbara Windsor, his torch-carrying dresser (excellent Jacqueline Defferary) and the busty starlet Imogen Hassall, played by the busty starlet Gina Bellman in a manner that entirely explains Dennis Potter's infatuation with her. The comic coup de theatre that ends Act One, following a wonderfully malicious act of sabotage by Kenneth Williams, is sheer joy. Things become much darker after the interval. Sid has become seriously infatuated with Barbara and is growing old and ill. Barbara's unseen husband, the lowlife villain Ronnie Knight (he won't enjoy this play) is up on a murder charge, and Kenneth Williams is suffering agonies from both his piles and his desperately low self-esteem. There's still a good deal of entertaining bickering, plenty of off-colour one-liners, but you have come to care about these people now and their unhappiness matters. Johnson, who directs his own play with relish, charts the end of an era - British comedy was changing fast and in a couple of years the alternative comedians would arrive on the scene - and also achieves a poignant sense of mortality. It's a lovely piece, affectionate, richly funny and hugely touching." Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph
"The National under Trevor Nunn seems to be going through something of an identity crisis. It thinks it's a cinema complex. Over on Screen One, there's Oklahoma! Now the Lyttelton's proscenium arch, which also plays host to Fiona Shaw's larger-than-life Miss Jean Brodie, has been tarted up as the Odeon big-scene that taste never knew: an imposing art-deco facade bathed in an orangey fake-tan glow, framing the ruched curtain of your worst nightmares. When that curtain rises on Terry Johnson's gag-packed Carry On pastiche Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick we are treated to mock credits, beginning with the full-bodied attack on the trademark Rank gong, followed by a juddering succession of garish celluloid images that abruptly melts in flames. It sets out Johnson's stall nicely - this is both an affectionate, elaborately imitative homage to a landmark of British comedy and a much darker retrospective than you'll ever find at the NFT. What follows represents a successful cross-fertilisation of the surreal celebrity gatherings of Insignificance (Marilyn Monroe and Einstein) or Hysteria (Freud and Dali) and the dissection of Benny Hill-style humour that made Dead Funny so poignantly funny. The action takes place over 14 years, during the shooting of four of the 29 films, from the apotheosis of Peter Rogers's and Gerald Thomas's end-of-the-pier smut machine, 1964's Cleo, to the creative knacker's yard of 1978's Emmanuelle after Sid James's death. Although different locations are denoted by backstage projections, the feel is predominantly Carry On Camping, the scenes being almost entirely confined to a cross-section of James's "Merry Traveller" trailer which hogs the stage throughout with a precarious lumpenness. The cramped conditions help create a pervading sense of entombed, fetid talent, but Johnson, who directs, has no problem utilising every inch of space for the kind of farcial comings and goings that are his meat and veg (he directed a rompy version of the Restoration comedy The London Cuckolds at the Lyttelton earlier in the year). This is a behind-the-scenes world in which the focus is ever on self-display. Into the nooks and crannies of El Sid's rocking caravan of love are bundled as many women as he can lay his hands on. Not surprisingly, the trailer rankles with Kenneth Williams, who delivers his opinion the minute he sets a Roman-sandalled foot inside: "I am outraged! This takes the biscuit. And not just any biscuit, I'm talking McVities plain chocolate digestives slightly melted and stuck together in threes." Adam Godley captures the whinnying exuberance and nasal hauteur of Williams perfectly, aided by a script that teems with caustic comments and the kind of fifth-rate double entendres the wag couldn't resist. Johnson has him locked into hilarious marital bickering with the adulterous, letch-by-rote James (Geoffrey Hutchings, who looks and sounds the spit down to the croaky laugh and squinty eyes). "You've never suffered the abject creeping horror of an ailing anus!" the latter is told. No, but he does suffer as intensely as Williams the hollowness of a comic actor running out of time and popular favour. Just as Samantha Spiro's Barbara (so good you wonder whether she is a replicant) can only inspect William's anus from afar, so she has to keep her distance from a lover for whom there can be no rescue. "It's all lies!" I heard the real Barbara Windsor giggle during the opening night. Taken in context, that was a real compliment." Dominic Cavendish, The Independent
"There is a long and honourable tradition among British intellectuals of celebrating smutty humour. It goes back at least as far as George Orwell's 1942 essay on "The Art of Donald McGill", in which he praised the way that McGill's saucy seaside postcards gave expression to "the Sancho Panza view of life". Terry Johnson is the tradition's foremost living exponent - he tackled the subject in Hysteria, with its panoply of Freudian jokes, and in Dead Funny, a comedy whose plot is sparked by the death of Benny Hill; and in his latest play he mines the motherlode of postwar British comedy, the Carry On films. For the occasion, the Lyttelton auditorium has been transformed into a provincial British cinema circa 1970, with glowing, nacreous proscenium and ruched purple curtains which lift to reveal a cinema screen: the Rank gong is beaten, and crazy music plays over cartoonish credits, instantly recognisable as rip-offs of the Carry On style. Recognisability is the chief pleasure of Johnson's production. After the screen has vanished, revealing the interior of a film-lot caravan, the first laugh goes to Geoffrey Hutchings simply for being recognisable as Sid James; Adam Godley, playing Kenneth Williams, earns a spontaneous round of applause for his first drawled, supercilious "Myairss"; and Samantha Spiro's Barbara Windsor is quite uncannily like the real thing - indeed, the real Barbara Windsor, who on Monday night was sitting in the stalls, looked in comparison like a shadowy projection of the one on stage. Of course, it is the stars' screen personae we recognise, not the real people. One of Johnson's central themes is the extent to which the actors both resemble and are trapped by their celluloid selves. Sid is a grinning lech, the lechery seems sordid and desperate. Kenneth is indeed a snobbish prude with a taste for vulgarity, but he is also an obsessive self-hater. Men are just as obsessed by Barbara's breasts offscreen as on. This is fertile territory, both for thought and for gags. The production has a glut of sharp double entendres. The best comes during the filming of Carry On Cleo, when Kenneth explains that "there's a Nubian 'and-maiden strained 'er 'and trying to get 'er black off in the sink". But he can barely tear his eyes away from the ripe, luscious subtexts bulging through the flimsy fabric of comedy; and, typically, when it comes to the crunch he is all fingers and thumbs and the straps won't come undone. The final scene is a dispiriting fumble: Sid James is dead and with him - this seems to be Johnson's reading - the spirit of honest vulgarity that moved the best of the films. As filming starts for the dispiriting soft-porn of Carry on Emmanuelle, the survivors gather in the stained, tatty wreck of Sid's caravan while, in the play's coarsest touch, his shade stands watching over them. Underneath the make-up, it seems, the clowns are all crying. If that really is all Johnson has to say, he would have been better off keeping quiet. But until the end, while he leaves the message to take care of itself, this is a marvellously enjoyable, well-acted play, and one that speaks directly to the naughty schoolboy that lurks in all of us." Robert Hanks, The Financial Times
"Watching Terry Johnson's beautifully acted play about three stars who camped, vamped and leered through those Carry On films is like being drenched in old-fashioned comic nostalgia. You come out reeking of innuendoes and double entendres, minted in the bad, old days when sexual plenty was a thing of the future. Cleo, Camping Emmanuelle And Dick seems the sort of crowd-pleasing, vulgar romp which ought to be brightening the West End. I worry that the National's financial pressures may be driving Trevor Nunn to give house-room to pleasurable though trivial frivolities like this. Of course the National should not just be force-feeding us with a diet of indigestible, musty classics. It ought to offer great musicals for which the West End lacks resources. And without the most interesting, provocative new writing it will dwindle to museum status. But if Nunn settles for West-End style plays, he will fall into the hostile hands of those eager for the Government to withdraw financial aid from the theatre. Johnson's an ingenious farceur who darkens his humour with a vein of melancholia. In Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle And Dick he succumbs to the conceit that Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor and Sid James were in real life just like the characters they played in those Carry On films. There's more than a grain of truth in such a notion. But this idea lures him and us into a closed though most am using world of stereotype and cliche. The starry trio are trapped in the vice of predictability. Was there little more to Kenneth Williams than dejected, scathing narcissism? Should he have been defined by the haemorrhoids in his back-passage, the witty sneers on his lips and an all-round campery? Was James only a compulsive lecher setting his sights on Barbara Windsor? The busty, gutsy Carry On survivor may not exactly describe herself as the good time had by all, but in Johnson's conception she wears a golden heart on her sleeve and not much more. Johnson sets his scene in Sid James's lurid caravan, with designer William Dudley's montage drawings and photographs of a rural film location. But the play deals in life away from the cameras. The itch and insistence of James's mammoth libido sets up a rather conventional sexual plot. So Geoffrey Hutchings's Sid nonchalantly pursues Sally his young, passionately committed dresser and a clawless, clueless sex kitten (Gina Bellman), while seriously romancing the married Barbara. The hard-to-hear Hutchings, who looks like James but cannot quite manage that gravelly rasp, makes a nice comic show when caught with girls in all the wrong places. He even achieves a touch of pathos when Samantha Spiro's Barbara, all bust and comic brio, gives him up. But Adam Godley, who perfectly catches Williams's nasal drawling and camp hauteur, is the evening's comic treat as he serves vollies of Johnson's witty abuse like a championship player. Johnson, who is his own rather heavy-handed director, does not disguise his play's aimless course. The farce changes direction, becoming a rueful, elegiac lament as years pass - the Carry On films losing potency in an age of candour. Johnson revels in this old comic world instead of exploring it." Nicholas de Jongh, The London Evening Standard