50 Great Moments of Theatre
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Back to Table of Contents >

Like Finding Money in the Street
Michael Frayn

Once the electricity is in the air even some quite circumstantial event can trip the spark. I remember a moment at Greenwich, on the first night of a musical by Ned Sherrin and Caryl Brahms called Sing a Rude Song. It was the story of Marie Lloyd, and it ended with Marie coming back at the end of her career, after all her troubles, and singing very simply the song that first made her famous – The Boy I love is up in the Gallery. It was a touching conclusion, but on the first night it became more than touching because Barbara Windsor, who played Marie, was struggling with a cold, and on the last number her voice finally disappeared. She stood there, a young girl again, smiling up at her boy while she sang her song – and not a sound came out. We all wept like children. How unfair. But how blessed. Like finding money in the street.

Susannah Clapp

The voice was a creamy falsetto, utterly eldritch. The words were coolly gloating, telling without sorrow of the burning to death of a small girl.  On the stage, fabric looked more animated than flesh. A life-size girl marionette – a creature of cloth and strings and straw and wool – was manipulated by onstage puppeteers. Manipulated to death. As she set herself alight by playing with matches, the fire that engulfed her was made by her own skirt and petticoats. Layers of blue and yellow and rose and scarlet covered her body until all that was left was an incinerated heap.

Everything about this instant in Shockheaded Peter, which I saw at West Yorkshire Playhouse fifteen years ago, was obviously manufactured, artificial. Nothing tried to be natural. It crackled with wit, not compassion.  Yet it left the audience looking at something elemental. Where that heap of burnt girl had lain, there sprang up a single, real flame.

Once, and Once Only
Alan Howard

Henry VI, Part 3, RSC, Aldwych Theatre, London, 1978.

There is a mound onstage. Seated upon it are a king and queen. By that late stage of the play, their kingdom is lost and their only child is dead: there’s nothing left – and no love between them. From stage left, a man enters, shabbily dressed in ragged modern clothes; he is carrying three daffodils. He walks to the mound, lays the flowers down, and nods to the king and queen; they nod in acknowledgement, he turns and leaves the stage without speaking. A Beckett moment in a Shakespeare play – though not one the director had planned, or anyone had rehearsed… Yet the man’s unexpected arrival onstage felt appropriate, right, miraculous – it took the scene where it needed to be, to a territory beyond despair.

I was playing Henry VI, Helen Mirren was playing Queen Margaret; the production had already played at Stratford, and was now in London – and we were months into the run. For all the audience knew, the man’s appearance was a directorial conceit, happened every night, at all

That was not the case: it was a one-off, an accident, an irrecoverable event – and experiencing the irrecoverable is the essence of theatre. Where the daffodil man came from was never established – perhaps from the Peabody Buildings next door, which provided a refuge for tramps and street sleepers. How he got into the Aldwych and onto the stage was never explained. He was never seen again at the theatre.

'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera