John Arden (1930 – 2012)

John Arden, a forgotten giant of the post-war renaissance in British theatre, has died at the age of 81. Long based in Ireland following a series of disputes with the English theatrical scene, Arden continued to write plays that were sharply critical of the British establishment’s policy towards his adopted homeland. However it is for his early work, which at the time were both commercial and critical failures, that his legacy will remain. 

Like so many other writers of the period, Arden came through the Royal Court’s Writer’s Group and his first play, The Waters of Babylon, highlighted his desire to engage with the social issues of  the time but also to avoid the trap of moralisation and gritty social realism. It also demonstrated Arden’s uncanny ability to pre-figure national events that were yet to break into the public consciousness, with a plot that identified the simmering tensions over immigration that were to explode in Notting Hill, eleven months after the play opened.

His plays were flops by any stretch of the imagination, Live Like Pigs managed 25% houses while Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, a play now regarded as a modern classic was dismissed by critics and saw almost 4 out of 5 seats remain empty. A reaction to the shooting of villagers in Cyprus by British soldiers, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was quickly reassessed as a major work and it won the Evening Standard Best Play award in 1960.

Like so many writers who never quite achieve the status they deserve, Arden proved to be too radical for mainstream consumption. Radical in his politics – he was a Marxist intellectual who used his plays to challenge the established order and was an ardent pacifist- he was also a radical in his writing. Arden’s plays are a rich and vivid affairs that blend prose, poetry and songs. He had a remarkable talent for dialect that allowed his characters to spring fully-shaped from the page. He also offered the audience no obvious direction as to whether their moral sympathies  should be directed –  characters that would normally be signposted as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ remain equally vibrant and engaging, leaving critics unsure as to what the message of his play were supposed to be.

Today Arden remains an underperformed playwright but Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance retains a major influence on writers. The fact that it is hard to remember how innovative it was to see a play use a historical setting to discuss current events is a measure of how ahead of his time Arden was in using a narrative device that is now a common feature of playwrights looking for a new angle in which to express old ideas.

Arden’s influence can be seen in the most recent play to be acclaimed as a British masterpiece – Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. Like Serjeant Musgrave, the story of ‘Rooster’ Byron seems to exists in a nether world where the threat of the outside is ever-present but does not encroach until the latter stages of the play, the characters are portrayed with a degree of moral ambivalence that makes it difficult for the audience to apportion their sympathies and there use of dialectal realist language mixed with prose poems and songs are reminiscient of Arden’s signature style.

Read the Guardian Obituary

Read the Telegraph Obituary

Time to cast your votes

As the nights draw in and the idea of schlepping down to the West End for an overpriced seat in an underheated auditorium begins to lose its appeal, it is time to join the Evening Standard in casting an eye over the years productions in order to bestow upon one the arbitrary title of Best Night Out. It is of course unfortunate that ‘Best Night Out’ is indelibly linked in my mind to provincial towns and phrases like ‘Mega-Bingo’ and ‘introducing Top Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood’, but we all have our crosses to bear.

So without further ado, the shortlist:

 

 

 

BATMAN LIVE (The O2 Arena, SE10)

Really, REALLY. It is hard to imagine the shortlist getting off to a more inauspicious start. I am not sure which marketing consultant drew a venn diagram between regular theatre goers and fans of Batman films. It is perfectly possible there are many. However they probably didn’t also consider whether all of these fans would rather rent The Dark Knight for a £3.99 than fork out extorniate prices to see Batman battle against a trio of his most deadly enemies: plot, character and action. Like all wars, there were no victors

 

 

 

CHICAGO (Garrick Theatre, WC2)

Yep, still here. After 14 years. As we move from Ute Lemper to Ruthie Henshall to Claire Sweeney to someone from Ugly Betty, one can only presume it is just as good now as it was then. If you are the last remaining person in London not to have seen it, rent the DVD. Its not great but at least its got Queen Latifah in it.

 

 

 

CRAZY FOR YOU (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, NW1 and Novello Theatre, WC2)
Ok, I actually like this. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre are building a bit of a reputation for themselves carving out interesting musicals. Last years Into The Woods was revelatory and whilst Crazy For You doesn’t reach those exceptionally high standards, it is great to see a traditional Chorus Line musical hit London, and is comfortable the best musical of its type since the last major revival of Anything Goes.

 

 

 

JERUSALEM (Apollo Theatre, W1)

Still excellent. Still the best play of the 21st century. Still one of the best performances of the 21st century. If you haven’t seen it yet then beg, borrow or steal tickets for its latest London run. The staggering tour-de-force that is Rylance’s performance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron makes it hard to imagine it being revived with any other actor in the role.

 

 

 

LA SOIREE (Magic Mirrors, SE1 and Roundhouse, NW1)
Saw La Clique. Sure its much the same. Seen one burlesque show seen them all. Law of diminishing returnsprobably applies. At least it’s not Cirque de Effin Soleil.

 

 

 

LES MISERABLES (Queens Theatre, W1)

Do you hear the people sing? Not if I can help it.

 

 

 

 

OFFICE PARTY (Pleasance Theatre, N7)
Oh god, by its own admission its interactive. Please, please, please will companies stop making us poor audiences become part of the action I am paying you to act, not me. If I could act I would be up there to begin with. Probably best for stag nights and hen parties of people who feel a little bit above Spearmint Rhino.

 

 

 

ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (National’s Lyttelton, SE1 and Adelphi Theatre, WC2)
Far better than anyone expected. It is fair to describe this as the breakthrough hit of the summer and a reminder to everyone that James Corden is far more than ‘James Cordon star of Lesbian Vampire Killers’. A fine actor, a fine translation and an absolute comic treat that more than deserves its West End transfer.

 

 

 

THE PITMEN PAINTERS (Duchess Theatre, WC2)

Haven’t seen it. By all accounts it is very good and deserves its West End transfer for taking a wonderful story that is made even stronger by its veracity. Before deciding to book tickets it should be noted that it was created by Lee Hall; a man also responsible for Billy Elliot. My understanding is there is less dancing in this.

 

 

 

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (Waterloo Station, SE1)
I really, really wish that I had managed to see this. By all accounts a lovely idea exceedingly well executed. In hindsight it makes perfect sense to stage this with a vintage steam train but actually using the former Eurostar platforms at Waterloo was a magical touch and all those who have seen it have managed a smile while stoically dabbing their eyes with hankies.

 

 

 

SHREK THE MUSICAL (Theatre Royal Drury Lane, WC2) 

So here is a great idea – we have a much loved character that has been slowly eroded by sequels that don’t quite live up to the imaginative reinvention of fairytale stereotypes of the first. Now how can we rejuvenate the brand? There must still be some money that can be squeezed from the pockets of parents somehow. How about a musical that strips all the magic from a fantasy land by spending an extorniate amount on a set, props and make-up that has 1/100th of the charm of the original film? C’mon people you might as well send a cheque straight to Stephen Spielberg.

 

 

 

WICKED (Apollo Victoria Theatre, SW1) 
Actually better than you might imagine. And now with Matt Willis from Busted. Hmm bad news for both the musical and Matt Willis’ solo career then.

If you actually want to vote in this thing (admittedly its not quite X Factor but its always nice to have a say) then you can do so here: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/bestnightout.do

Let the best play win (and please please please don’t be Batman Live).