London On Six Shows A Fortnight

The Theatre Tour is a cheap way to travel. But the English are still the best show in town

SUSAN,IAN McDOUGALL March 1 1974

London On Six Shows A Fortnight

The Theatre Tour is a cheap way to travel. But the English are still the best show in town

SUSAN,IAN McDOUGALL March 1 1974

London On Six Shows A Fortnight

The Theatre Tour is a cheap way to travel. But the English are still the best show in town

SUSAN

IAN McDOUGALL

Bad theatre is better than no theatre; good theatre is a passion. And the theatre in London is at the centre of that passion. That is where it all came from, for English Canada; London established the traditions, developed the techniques, set and broke the limits. Sooner or later, if you love what happens on a stage, you go to London: the headquarters.

And, of course, you go to London for itself: for the people, and the past that lives in the city.

It remains only to be able to afford it. A round-trip ticket, Toronto to London, during the winter months, costs $434 (providing you’re staying 14 to 21 days; if you’re going for 22 to 45 days, the price drops to $279). But the cost of hotel accommodation has risen dramatically in London in recent years, and when we added up all our likely expenditures we concluded, reluctantly, that the trip would cost too much.

Then we struck upon a solution — the London Theatre

Tour, developed by Air Canada and BOAC. If you go between the first of November and March 28, for the Super tour you get two weeks in London, accommodation included, tickets to six shows, a free Avis car for one day, and return air fare, for a price beginning at $446. (There is also a one-week Mini tour, with four theatre tickets, from $371.) We mused on the advertisements and finally jumped.

The tour solved problems. We’ve worked in and around London, husband and wife, as stage manager and set designer; we’re London enthusiasts and theatre fanatics. And there was an element of curiosity: what would a tour like that be like? Full of plump English teachers from Toronto, bound for Culture? Ladies from Halifax in flowered hats off to see The Mousetrap for the ninth time?

Yes. And, of course, no. Shortly after we arrived in London, the organizers of the tour held an introductory tea for

those who were curious, as we were, about exactly who else goes to London on a show tour package. It was clear that nobody disliked the theatre; it was also clear that many of the customers had come for reasons other than the aesthetic.

A Toronto businessman: “It’s cheaper for me to come over on the tour with my wife for two weeks, fly off to Frankfurt for three days on business and come back, than to fly over on a regular basis. And I can make some contacts in London while I’m here.”

A couple with an extended family of relatives outside London: “It gives us a ready-made excuse to get away. We don’t have to stay more than two days with any one before there’s a show, and we have to get to London to see it.”

But, of course, there were also aficionados like us on a short trip to London. We’d see at least one show every day and spend a good part of the rest of the day drinking bitter in a pub and arguing about the quality of the production. The shows, arranged by the tour agents on a block-booking basis, are not likely to include productions such as the National Theatre’s exquisite Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with Sir Laurence Olivier, which was playing when we were there but which rapidly became so successful that tickets were difficult to get. We were offered Gone With The Wind, a musical; No Sex Please, We’re British, an addled farce; Lloyd George Knew My Father, another farce; Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something!, another farce, this time starring Brian Rix, who appears in his underwear at some point in each of his productions; I And Albert, a musical based on the life of Queen Victoria; and a fine production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens.

All of them, with the exception of the last. . . well, not turkeys perhaps, but not the sort of thing theatre fanatics generally cross an ocean to see. In fairness to the tour agents, though, what we were offered was pretty representative of the fare generally available in London’s commercial West End at the time. The list of available plays has been expanded considerably this year and includes such promising entries as The Constant Wife, starring Ingrid Bergman and directed by Sir John Gielgud; Savages, by Christopher Hampton and starring Paul Scofield; Relative Values, another Coward play, starring Margaret Lockwood, and several new musicals and comedies.

Those who are not satisfied with the plays offered by the tours are invited to browse through the shows available at the experimental and subsidized theatres. At their own expense.

Fair enough. There were, after all, two attractions to the tour: the theatre and London itself.

We’re Canadians, but to be in London again was a bit like coming home. Back to the pubs: the Salisbury, in St. Martin’s Lane, an actors’ retreat, swank in purple velvet and etched mirrors; the Lamb and Flag, near Covent Garden, also known as the Bucket of Blood after its gory past as a cutthroat den. Dickens drank in the Lamb and Flag. Dickens, evidently, drank in every pub in London that existed in his lifetime, and in a number that hadn’t yet been built.

London is not generally known as a city for sensualists. Well, it depends on your definition of sensuality. Sheekey’s oyster bar is just around the corner from the Salisbury. Raw oysters, and Dover sole, elegant and smooth, like some exotic seagoing fruit.

We made the rounds. Foyle’s, a colossal bookstore on Charing Cross Road, with long corridors of print winding to the horizon. Piccadilly. The Strand. Westminster. Hyde Park.

The tourist’s London. But the tourist’s London is the real London, and we are both tourists and Londoners. More than any other city, London seems to make the people who visit it part of itself; it’s more accessible than, say, New York, the other great theatre capital, which makes the tourist a suspicious neurotic, a Christian in Nero’s Rome.

Things are changing; they always do. The local pub survives and flourishes, but with a Colonel Sanders Fried

Chicken palace on one side and a Wimpy Bar serving inedible hamburgers on the other. Shopping centres blossom. Somebody bought London Bridge and moved it to the American West. Perhaps because London is both foreign and accessible to North Americans, those North Americans have an impulse to change it or move it to make London a home away from home, either where it is or in Arizona.

American businessmen in particular have their own ideas of what London ought to be. We were lodged in a spanking new, grossly North American-style hotel, the Royal Scot, on King’s Cross Road. Drinks were available in the room, served and charged by computer. Jeeves would blench. The doorman doubled as a fully kilted Highland piper, marching twice a day up and down the courtyard parking lot, dodging cars and playing the Skye Boat Song.

But London survived the blitz; it can no doubt survive technology and cost accounting. One quality, at least, is not for sale: the slight, endearing dottiness of many Londoners. The bright, the dull, the halfand wholly-cracked are on display every Sunday at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, proselytizing on behalf of free trade, social credit and vegetarianism. Refreshments are served in the theatre auditoria at intermission; one elderly woman went to see My Fair Lady every Wednesday afternoon for years, simply because “it’s such a nice place to have tea.”

English Canadians are closer, or like to think they’re closer, to London than Americans; one of the ways to separate a Canadian from an American is to take him abroad. Canadian adolescents spread immense maple leaves on their packsacks, and Canadian adults spend a good deal of time saying pointedly that they are not from Pittsburgh. Instant patriotism. We did not revolt against England, and our reward for that is an emotional insight into England unavailable to the Americans.

So, finally, even the half-baked farces and unstrung musicals available on the theatre tour are tolerable, because they’re English; a similar schedule on Broadway would be unendurable. You go home to London, even if you’ve never been before, and the peculiarities of home are endearing.

For those who ask that theatre be something more than endearing, the London Super Theatre Tour still represents a cheap and pleasant way to get to the place where the theatres are. There will be at least one free (or included) ticket to a show worth seeing; and tickets for all shows in London are a lot cheaper than theatre tickets in Canada. We recommend the following:

The National Theatre, headed by Sir Laurence Olivier. A highly skilled (although lately somewhat troubled), subsidized theatre that presents classic and modern productions, usually competently and occasionally with brilliance.

The Royal Shakespeare Company. An exciting and forceful group headed by Peter Brook, one of the most talented directors in the world.

The Royal Court. A theatre that specializes in new plays, and first presented the work of John Osborne and several other tough new British playwrights.

The Greenwich Theatre, founded by Robin Phillips, the young British director who is to take over this year as artistic director of the Stratford Festival.

There are also, of course, the theatres outside but close to London. Chichester, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre at Guildford, and the Thorndike at Leatherhead. Regional theatres in Britain have been disappearing as the costs of production have risen, but the companies that are left produce work as competent as most of the West End houses.

The show tour, then, turns out not to be a tour at all: no regimentation, no leaders, simply a well-organized and convenient way to get to where the shows are. London.

And London, of course, has more than theatre. It has, well. London. ■