THE BELLS! THE BELLS! THE BOOMING!
“Where else” says an exasperated Sir Henry Irving , asked at the gates of Heaven to justify the profession which estranged him from his religious mother and cost him a wife and children, “Where else could a stuttering, sickly, bandy-legged boy from Somerset play kings and heroes?”. Fair enough. And he goes on to point out that his contribution helped to make the profession more respectable in a society still too prone to regard players as riff-raff.
Cards on the table, I nipped up the Piccadilly line to the Park theatre’s smaller studio, and Andrew Shepherd’s play partly because my own great-grandparents in family legend shared a stage with Irving once (no doubt somewhere near the back). My Granny, on her wedding night, was told by her upright spouse that it was lucky she remained “pure” in this low theatrical world and she must never speak of The Theatre again. Even after the knighted Irving, suspicion hung around it.
So what with the swagged red curtains and the fact that Shepherd, playing his hero himself, adopts a weird (though sadly accurate) prim Edwardian accent (“I will play Hemlet!”) it was one for me. It’s double-billed with an hour-long version of the melodramatic hokum which made his name – The Bells – but I saw only the 90-minute biographical piece, directed by Lucy Foster with many a flourish.
From his first entrance with a cry of “It is I!”, Irving is taken through his life’s highlights and disasters by the prim heavenly clerk (Simon Blake). His mother preaches hellfire on finding his volume of Shakespeare, he stutteringly forgets his only few lines as a “walking-gentleman” at the Sunderland Lyceum, slogs through twenty-plays-a-month rep, meets his various women, and marries one who disapproves, so he walks out on her and his unborn child when she snaps that he’s “Making a fool of himself” just after his big night emoting through The Bells.
He meets Ellen Terry, played as an appallingly actressy showoff by Angela Ferns (though she shows proper quality when she does an Ophelia scene). Most importantly, Shepherd gives us glimpses – though not enough – of what real novelties of quality Irving brought to the stage: his quieter-than-Kemble Hamlet, his controversially dignified Shylock, his reluctance to boom for booming’s sake. There are some nice lines (“If Shakespeare was meant to be farted you’re using the wrong hole”) and a good indication of the ongoing insults he received from George Bernard Shaw.
It’s not the first time this landmark late-Victorian moment in theatre has been material for modern imagination: Michael Punter’s spooky squib STAGEFRIGHT at Bury St Edmunds saw a petulant Irving and his house manager Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame) locked in the Lyceum overnight, and the same GBS tension was referred to there. Shepherd’s piece is interesting for lovers of theatre history , but becomes a bit too narrative “and-then-and-then”, and could profitably leave out one or two incidents.
But it’s Christmas, a time to call up ghosts and remember what lies beneath and behind the age of Rylance and McKellen (and indeed of Brian Blessed, when it comes to booming). And you get The Bells for the same ticket, if something even spookier, more retro and darkly murderous is your bag.
http://www.parktheatre.co.uk to 19 Dec