John Miles remembers Tony Allen, March 4th, 1945 to December 1st 2023

Tony was on the up when Bruce Birchall introduced us in the late spring of 1973. I’d been pretty low for a while when we sat in the British Oak that first night. For the next few months we were like a runaway train. In a matter of days, with Bruce and Tom Costello, we’d done our first piece in the street - twice on a housing demo - in Portobello Road. Tom sat on Tony’s shoulders and released a toilet roll to represent a tower-block. A quick pair of hands and a bag under yer over-coat. On and off it lasted for three years till we fell out over the scripts before Tony and Tom had their improvisatory coda with Jonathan. ‘When’, Tony asked me, a couple of weeks before he died, ‘did we stop being layabouts and become artists?’ It was his singular gift to convince everyone he was a layabout even though he wasn’t. He might be impulsive and inconsistent but he had great discipline. He might walk off stage but he never missed a deadline, at least not with me. He wouldn’t do what you expected but he’d always turn up on time. The sheer range of his projects – too many, sadly, unfinished – testify to that, and to his persistence and inventiveness. But if it didn’t ring true he wouldn’t do it. Once he couldn’t remember his scripts he’d stop performing. Sadly, that came to be the case. If it no longer looked right for a film, then it had to be a novel. The drafts are legion. If the verbal images dried up then it must be a comic. Sheaves of paper bundled neatly up in hold-alls and forgotten brief-cases. All of which could be frustrating for his collaborators. You had to feint and dodge, give ground, then suddenly advance. We didn’t name it so but for a while Rough Theatre did feel like art. As if we could squash the contradictions of the counter-culture, the self-mythologising, the silliness and pomposity, the playfulness and anger, all the wild wisdom, into one deft kaleidoscope. It worked. At least twice. Which was hard on Tony, spiritually, because he believed in it all. One night last October we were shaking our heads about the madness and injustice of the world and he said: ‘All I wanted when I came here was to make sure everyone was alright, everyone had somewhere to live and enough to get by. I’ve never understood why everyone else doesn’t want that. Why that isn’t enough.’ And he had that imperative - ‘Get in good company’. He didn’t see the need for pain and suffering. And he wound up with a lot of both. Even though he was well looked after. I‘m very glad we came back together. In the end we did enough to celebrate, modest though it was. For all the lost opportunities, Rough Theatre, small but reasonably well-formed, feels complete. Thank you, Tony. Love you, mate. You were very beautiful.

Phil Wolmuth

Phil Wolmuth at Trafalgar Square

In our 1970s heyday the great photographer Phil Wolmuth, who died at home following cancer on February 21st, was Rough Theatre’s guitar-player. There weren’t many songs in the two shows he worked on: patience was a virtue that informed his whole life as a campaigner for justice. He took the time to get alongside people and earn their trust. Of all of us Phil changed the least - his warm, kindly presence and droll sense of humour informed his conversation and his work. John commissioned two great albums for the Greenhill Aphasia Group in Newham from him while he and Tony, of whom Phil made several action portraits, would meet at Speakers Corner. He’s gone too soon and we’ll miss him.



Stuart Golland and Tony Allen in Free Milk and Orange Juice

Rough Theatre Archive

Rough Theatre was a 1970s fringe theatre company (1973 – 1979) noted for its blend of comedy and radical politics (anarchist – naughty tendency).

Rough Theatre was formed early in 1974 by John Miles and Tony Allen who had met in the Summer of 73 working in West London Theatre Workshop’s Adventure playground kids show Badman Rides Again. They shared a spiky adult sense of humour, happy to attack the bureaucratic and humourless left and the bigoted and compassionless right. Squat Now While Stocks Last (the street play of the Graffiti) was their first play and was a tidied up version of a noisy ironic sketch - Story of a Poor Landlord written for WLTW and which grew out of the group's penchant for all-singing all-dancing slogan-chanting clowning cum oompah band style of larky behaviour they favoured on political demonstrations.