Rough Theatre History - Farrell Cleary

Memories of Rough Theatre and London in the 1970s by Farrell Cleary

I was working as a Postman at the big New Oxford Street Office, but dreaming of doing revolutionary guerrilla theatre.

Someone in North Kensington, probably Pat Bolster, the Secretary of the Kensington and Hammersmith Trades Council, told me I should visit Tony Allen in Westbourne Park Road. “I'm not sure of the number but just look for the multicoloured door.” Tony answered when I knocked on the door. He lived on the ground floor. Somewhere else behind that door was the Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency for Squatters, that had something to do with Heathcote Williams who lived with Diana and their daughter China in a flat somewhere near there.

Tony welcomed me with a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit or three.

John Miles may have been there on that first visit but perhaps it was the next day that I came back and met them both.

They told me about their split from West London Theatre Workshop and its authoritarian director Bruce Burchall.

Tom Costello had left with them but by the time I arrived he'd decided that he wanted to do sculpture rather than more theatre.


That was early in 1974. Within a few days I joined Tony and John for our first performance. I wore a huge Ted Heath head as we headed down to Downing St to demand that Heath resign. He had lost the general election by a whisker but was refusing to go. Tony and John led the voices baying for Heath's head. John jammed on his clarinet. [John must have played on his clarinet would be truer. After 39 years, I retain no more than isolated memory snapshots from those events.]

It was exhilarating as the crowd roared its hostility to my Heath head at the entrance to Downing Street. After months of working as a Postman at the New Oxford St office, I felt as if I had rediscovered that lost dimension of street theatre.

I realised that our theatre group could just as well have been called Danger Theatre as Rough Theatre when someone suggested that “Heath” jump from Westminster Bridge into the Thames. Tony and John seemed to think that wasn't such a bad idea and I obviously disappointed them, and the crowd, when, like the real Ted Heath, I refused to jump.

In spite of that, John and Tony must have thought I'd passed the audition/ baptism by demo, and I carried on with them as the third member of Rough Theatre for the next year and a half until late 1975.

Both John and Tony were in awe of Tom C's comic genius and were hoping that he would re-join them.

A month or two after the Heath demo, Tony, Mary Ann, Tom, Johnny Clayden, and I moved into a licensed squat at 32 Bravington Rd, just across the Canal from North Kensington and the Golborne Rd.

Here, in the South Pacific, there is no-one to swap Rough Theatre stories with. Dean Parker, who is the single-handed New Zealand answer to the Hare-Bond-Brenton etc generation of lefty English playwrights, honours Tony’s activities as Rough founder and radical comedian and allows me an aura of reflected mana because he believes me when I say that I was a part of Rough Theatre. I have no proof. [Pause while the web furnishes the proof, the replicable proof: “Allen, Cleary and Miles, London, 1975. Two lumpen layabouts try to con an upper class retired General into believing they have the political and spiritual answers to the nations [sic] problems. Uses low comedy, ham oratory, political satire and spontaneous busking “

I am grateful to Tony and John, and also to the zeitgeist of the age, for adding my name to theirs in the author's slot of the entry for Heart of a Patriot. Although I don't like to admit it, it would have been more accurate if Tony had put in “Miles and Allen” as co-authors with a note saying something like: the script evolved from improvisations between the two authors and Farrell Cleary who now and again contributed a phrase (“brass razoo”) or an idea which influenced the text.”

If they had left out even an acknowledgement, I wouldn't have been surprised or even annoyed, just a bit disappointed, because after months and months of what must have seemed less than whole-hearted work, after we had down our dash with performances of Heart of a Patriot, I left them. My confession that I was looking forward to our Rough rehearsals even less than the jobs I was doing to pay the bills, was about as depressing a parting shot as you could come up with.

Even now, I ruefully wonder what was missing. Tony is and was a gifted comic writer. John was a multi-talented intellectual who combined a Cheshire accent with Cambridge intellectual panache. I had been doing radical street theatre and helped found the NZ version of the Living Theatre. We all three shared an anarchist vision of the world and the theatre.

Why didn't it work?

No matter. I left and Tony and John sort of forgave me. I became absorbed in the radical fringe of the London legal world through Up Against the Law and the North Ken Law Centre and John and Tony carried on to do a couple of other plays in the next year: Squat Now While Stocks Last and Free Milk and Orange Juice. I'm ashamed to say that I don't remember anything about the former, even though I was still sharing a house, friendship and revolutionary aspirations with Tony.

And then came Free Milk and Orange Juice. I missed the opening as I dreamt of post-Franco Spain and negotiated the disintegration of my relationship with a North Ken poet.

One night, at a show in the West End, I struck up a conversation with Susana, a Madrileña who was studying English in London. She told me she was fascinated by Fringe Theatre and asked me if I knew anything about what sounded like the most interesting group in London, Rough Theatre. We went to see Free Milk and Orange Juice a couple of nights later.

It was extraordinary. Just have a look at Heathcote's appreciation of Rough Theatre on Tony's web site. There had been a magical evolution from what had seemed like the sometimes turgid polemic of Heart of a Patriot into the endlessly inventive chipper, anarchic levelling humour that pervaded the script and the songs. And the two new actors, Maggie Ford and Stuart Golland brought a wealth of acting experience and craft that added a bounce to the roughness.

I ruefully thought that I'd suffered through the time of blocks and half-fulfilment and had not stayed around for the creative harvest.

Soon after that, I went to Spain. John started to work for old people and Tony, after long admiring Heathcote's account of the speakers at Hyde Park Corner, became one of the next generation of legendary speakers himself and one of the progenitors of the London radical stand up comedy tradition.

I feel I made a modest contribution to Tony's debut as a speaker. By mid 1977, he'd honed his heckling skills to perfection but had not made the transition to the heckled.

After the big anti-fascist demo at Lewisham in September? 1977, I was incensed by the inaccurate coverage of the event in next day's Sunday papers. I was cycling past Marble Arch trying think what I should write in response when I suddenly decided to speak my anger at Speakers' Corner. I did and to my amazement found a sympathetic and attentive audience who followed me as I talked and talked over a range of topics way beyond the previous day's demo.

When I told Tony that night about having spoken I could tell he was impressed that I'd done it and had the feeling that it would not be long before he started speaking himself. It wasn't. Within a year I was in Spain and reading about Tony being arrested and tried for testing the boundaries of free speech at the Corner.

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