Tag Archives: London theatre

Going Dark

The other day I was going through some old theatre programmes and came across one produced for Harvey at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Intrigued as this was the first my first question at an appearance when I started The Knowledge.

Starring James Stewart who at that time was the Tom Hanks of his day. The Pulitzer winning comedy has as its central character, Elwood. P. Dowd.

[T]his was a role reprised by Stewart from the film of the same name, featuring an amiable alcoholic with an imaginary or invisible friend, Harvey a six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch tall rabbit that only he can see.

Perusing the theatre memorabilia the first surprise was that I had paid the princely sum of £3.70 a ticket (Row C, Seats 25-26) on 19th April 1975. Comparing with today’s West End there was another surprise to be gleaned from this simple theatre programme.

Cover

It has only been six weeks since Edward Heath had lost a General Election to Labour. This election result brought five years of strikes and austerity, a time fondly remembered by today’s Labour leaders.

Sitting in the theatre, a stone’s throw from Leicester Square, which by the end of Labour’s tenure would be waist deep in dumped rubbish sacks, and swarming with rats, the result of a dustmen’s strike.

The biggest surprise from West End theatre was an advert tucked away on page 21. It was a plea to ‘Save London’s Theatres’.

Save-London-Theatres

It is hard for us today to realise that at that time many theatres were said to be ‘going dark’ when there wasn’t the money or inclination to put on a production for fear of making a substantial loss.

Remarkable for us that London was so poorly supported when today a new venue opens every year, the latest being the wonderful intimate Bridge Theatre.

The Knowledge on stage

Surprisingly, Jack Rosenthal didn’t win an award for The Knowledge, a play he wrote in 1979. Despite being, what many regard as the work that defined London at that time he was only nominated for the Prix Italia British Academy Best Play Award. Now, this seminal work on learning to be a London cabbie and of the candidate’s perseverance, triumph over adversity and redemption has, after nearly 40 years, reached the London stage.

[I]t still retains some of the great comic dialogue spoken by the examiner, Mr Burgess, based on a real-life, notoriously sadistic examiner, a Mr Finlay. It was played in the original Euston Films production by Nigel Hawthorne, while here we have Steven Pacey reprising the role.

The dialogue is a joy:

Mr Burgess addressing the candidates:

Now, The Knowledge sounds impossible. It isn’t. Otherwise, there’d be no such phenomenon as the London cabby. It’s true that no taxi-driver in no other city in the world has to know a fraction of what you have to know. And not many brain surgeons neither. But there we are. That’s how we built an Empire – and, no doubt, how we knocked the bugger down again. We live . . . We learn . . . What we, in our ignorance, call Knowledge.

The clever set is on two levels with street signs and traffic signals suspended from the fly loft. The use of two stages has enabled the upper to be exclusively for the examiner, Mr Burgess’s office, while the main stage is used for all the other sets.

Before the play commences a montage of interviews, by cabbies and examiners, are projected onto the back fly.

This ensemble play has at its core Mr Burgess played convincing by Steven Pacey – who’s almost as close to a real examiner as the original played by Nigel Hawthorne – while perched above the rest of the cast in his office.

Clever rearranging of the original dialogue by Simon Block has brought this convincingly to the stage and given it the necessary pace to push the dialogue forward, due in no small measure by the directorial skills of Maureen Lipman.

Most of the original characters are here, with the exception of ‘Titanic’, the hapless Knowledge boy in the original.

Ben Caplan reprises the central role of Ted Margolies, whose family are all London cabbies, and the only way to gain their respect is to join them. Ted is encouraged by his very Jewish wife Val, played by ‘Birds of a Feather’ star Lesley Joseph in the original. Here Jenna Augen convincing plays Ted’s proud wife and is simply the star of the production. Every time she is talking, or singing, to her husband she dominates the stage.

Another nice touch was the inclusion of a parrot in Mr Burgess’s office. Not featured in the original, the most dreaded of examiners of my generation was Mr Ormes (briefly featured in the opening clips), he had a toy parrot who mirrored Mr Ormes’s mood that day. Looking out – happy; looking towards the Knowledge student; moody. Nice touch, as the in-joke was only intended for cab drivers.

If you want to understand The Knowledge, or for that matter, want to see one of London’s funniest plays, make an ‘appearance’ at the Charing Cross Theatre.

The Knowledge by Jack Rosenthal; adapted by Simon Block, and directed by Maureen Lipman
Runs from Monday 11th September until Saturday 11th November.

Charing Cross Theatre
The Arches
Villiers Street
London WC2N 6NL

http://www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Box office: 08444 930 650

Performances:
Monday to Saturday at 7.30 pm
Wednesday matinee at 2.30 pm
Saturday matinee at 3.00 pm

Tickets:
£35.00 stalls
£25.00 balcony
£17.50 slips

Premium £42.50 which includes prime stalls locations, a programme and a glass of bubbly.

A booking fee applies to phone and internet orders; no booking fee to personal callers.
The box office is open from 2 hours before curtain time on performance days.

The Knowledge, The Play

Transferring a television drama to the stage is fraught with difficulties: location shots, establishing a back story, not to mention setting the scene. Add to this taking a work written 40-years-ago by one of London’s most highly regarded playwrights.

The producers would have to be possessed with the tenacity and a belief in their project that any aspiring student of The Knowledge needs to achieve their badge.

[P]roducers Vaughan Williams and Stephen M. Levy have taken up the challenge and on 11th September will stage, for the first time, The Knowledge at Charing Cross Theatre. This modest venue – a Victorian music hall – has a history almost as old as The Knowledge which itself was introduced in 1851 thirteen years before the theatre’s opening.

The Knowledge was nominated for a BAFTA as Best Single TV Play. In 1995, film historian Geoff Phillips declared it “certainly the best TV play Britain has ever produced”.

Set against the backdrop of the harsh economic times of 1979, the play follows the hilarious struggles of four Londoners as they attempt to better themselves by attempting the fearsome ‘Knowledge’ – the process of becoming a London black cab taxi driver. Standing between them and the coveted Green Badge is the eccentric Mr Burgess, the examiner. Also known as ‘The Vampire’, he is on an obsessive mission to maintain standards.

In an exclusive interview producer Vaughan Williams explained to CabbieBlog that by living for the past 18 years in Milner Square, adjacent to Gibson Square (the first destination in The Knowledge’s blue book), he would regularly meet Knowledge boys and girls starting their journey to gain the coveted green badge.

When asked about the problems transferring a drama, which for much of the plot, takes place on London’s roads Vaughan Williams explained:

Similarly, when I had the idea to stage the work, I watched the film a couple of times and quickly realised that the appearances are at the very heart of the show. They contain two actors, a desk and two chairs – an incredibly theatrical setup which, we believe, will work even better on stage than on film.

The play has been adapted by Simon Block whose credits include the TV drama series Home Fires which starred Francesca Annis and Samantha Bond, and with a remarkable vote of confidence, The Knowledge will be directed by Maureen Lipman who starred in the original production and is the widow of the play’s original writer Jack Rosenthal.

For the producers, some of the motivation for bringing this work to the London stage is to draw the public’s attention what might be lost if the cab trade continues its downward spiral.

Vaughan Williams:

One of the reasons we are doing the show is to help educate the taxi-using public about the Knowledge of London.

It’s been a long time since 1979 and most people don’t realise how demanding the process is and how much expertise drivers possess. They know that UBER is ( usually ! ) cheap, but the fragmented nature of the cab trade means that potential customers don’t necessarily appreciate the quality difference. You get what you pay for.

The Knowledge by Jack Rosenthal; adapted by Simon Block; and directed by Maureen Lipman
Runs from Monday 11th September until Saturday 11th November.
Previews from Monday 4th September

Charing Cross Theatre
The Arches
Villiers Street
London WC2N 6NL
www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk
Box office: 08444 930 650

Performances:
Monday to Saturday at 7.30 pm
Wednesday matinee at 2.30 pm
Saturday matinee at 3.00 pm

Tickets:
£35.00 stalls
£25.00 balcony
£17.50 slips
Premium £42.50 which includes prime stalls locations, a programme and a glass of bubbly.

A booking fee applies to phone and internet orders; no booking fee to personal callers.
The box office is open from 2 hours before curtain time on performance days.

Special Offer:
As a token of their strong support, the producers are making an exclusive advance booking offer to the cab trade.
For bookings, made prior to the first performance on 4th September, any Green or Yellow Badge Licensed London Taxi Driver or Knowledge Boy/Girl can, for the price of a stalls seat ( £35 ) get an upgrade for themselves and their guests to a Premium Package, which will give them: A complimentary drink (glass of bubbly or bottle of Becks), a complimentary programme and access to the best available seats in the house; in addition, the Producers will waive any booking fees.

They may be asked to demonstrate eligibility by showing a badge, TfL letter or current appearance card when picking up the tickets.

To buy tickets using this offer :

Go to http://www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk
Choose the show
Choose your date
Enter ” belucky” as your promotion code
Then choose your seats. You can buy as many as you wish.

Many thanks for your support,

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Image: As there are precious few Knowledge ‘boys or girls’ about on London’s streets nowadays I’ve used an old picture from A Raft of Apples.