Rough Theatre 1974-1978
Rough Theatre History - Tony Allen
Rough Theatre. The Early Days. A personal memoir by Tony Allen Mar 2014
Part One: Pre-Rough Theatre - Bruce Birchall and West London Theatre Workshop.
My first involvement with any sort of theatre was in the mid-to-late sixties, while I was still living in Hayes Middlesex on the suburban fringes of West London; myself and an old school mate Vernon Magee had started writing comedy drama scripts in the style of Steptoe and Son. The characters were based on some of the gamblers, con-men and petty criminals we’d encountered in the billiard hall of our recent youth. Our first success was a short stage play very loosely based on the Great Train robbery and produced by a local amateur dramatic society. It won a sticky star in the Hillingdon drama festival. Although I had played only a minor part in the piece and was elated by the experience, I found the process of acting oddly constricting. I had slightly less trouble when the Ickenham Youth Theatre staged a variety show and I wrote and performed a few minutes of stand-up comedy, freely sampling Max Miller and Frankie Howerd. It was hardly Lenny Bruce but it went down well and was an important personal success. These, and a perfunctory role of MC at the Hayes Folk Club was the sum total of my theatrical activity.
I was slow to absorb the politics of 1968 and the inevitable changes that were happening to youth culture and the arts. I actually paid my money and sat and watched the hippie rock musical ‘Hair’ before I realised that it was nothing more than well-hyped expensive West End Show.
At about this time I read Peter Brook’s opus on modern theatre The Empty Space. In particular I was drawn to the section on Rough Theatre; “…theatre that is not in a theatre… but a theatre with audiences standing, drinking, joining in and answering back.” It not only made me feel very provincial and hobbyist about my acting and writing connections in local amateur dramatics, but it also alerted me to the fact that something very real was occurring beyond the middle class audiences sat in proscenium arch theatres in London’s West End. The seed was sown - in some corner of my brain there was a fantasy that one day I would be a member of a street theatre group called Rough Theatre.
In the sympathetic pages of International Times and OZ magazines I was learning about Anarchy and Situationism. I was learning that the parameters of theatre were being stretched - Yippees had thrown money at financial traders on the New York Stock Exchange; a provocative actor Julian Beck and his Living Theatre group were travelling the world performing naked and getting themselves arrested in the name of liberation. Closer to home near Hyde Park Corner barely a stones throw from Buckingham Palace a group called The London Street Commune had occupied 144 Piccadilly and, before they were finally evicted, had held an open house at their show squat attracting a ragtag army of young supporters and a lot of adverse press coverage. While news reports these events could only loosely be described as the theatre of spectacle, they had clearly got my juices going. I had also seen Peter Terson’s Zigger Zagger - an impressive piece of modern theatre, and I’d seen it live on the London stage; The National Youth Theatre’s ensemble playing of a teeming terrace of rowdy soccer fans was truly exhilarating theatre.
By 1970 I had become a political activist albeit heavily influenced by the underground press; I called myself an Anarchist - Naughty Tendency (and still do to this day). On a Friday night in Southall, in the back bar of the White Hart pub, I discovered a lively cabaret club - the weekly gathering of the Freeman Syndicate - a broad church of anarchists, hippies and leftists. It was here I saw my first live political street theatre group. CAST - Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre were impressive, a talented ensemble bent on pitching provocative ideas to the audience, luckily they had the saving grace of a strong sense of humour. I wanted to see more. The scribe at the club helped me book a similar outfit to play the Hayes Folk Club the following month. Agit Prop Street Theatre were unashamedly didactic and po-faced and while their socialist message differed little from that of CAST, they chose to bludgeon it home joylessly. And there was more - in lieu of payment and as part of their performance they demanded an open-ended discussion with the audience about the politics of the play. I was so conflicted - I had recently taken on running the club and had no interest in listening to (or subjecting the audience to) various local windbags discussing politics with a bunch of earnest actors. I was however suppressing an urge to discuss their chosen style of theatre with any of them willing to defend it. Surprise! Surprise! Even less people wanted to do that. The impasse was finally resolved when half the room (including many of my new friends and comrades from the Freeman Syndicate) left to discuss politics in the saloon bar, while I stayed in the club room and introduced the next would-be Dylan from Denham.
I did manage to eventually get my say; The following is the final paragraph of a review of Agit Prop Street Theatre I wrote for the local underground magazine Itch, (your friendly local irritant) May ’70.
…this performance is no more than a crude political lecture and as such will force many people, especially working class council tenants onto the defensive… The alternative is to give the play an ironic slant - portray Joe Worker as a naive patriotic blackleg, who unknowingly helps the landlord by refusing to join the rent strike and inevitably causes its downfall. The triumphant landlord could provide the much needed curtain line with a deafening “Profit! More profit”.
The ‘ironic slant’ and even versions of the characters, were to feature prominently in both Squat Now While Stocks Last and Dwelling Unit Sweet Dwelling Unit.
In November 1972 I applied for a job as a street theatre actor advertised in the London listings magazine Time Out. Soon after, at the audition in a room above the British Oak pub on Westbourne Park Road, I met Bruce Birchall the director of West London Theatre Workshop. I can’t remember the details, there were other applicants and we did some improvised sketches, but afterwards Bruce Birchall asked me to hang back and join him and a couple of his cronies for a drink. The upshot was that he offered to take me on as an actor/writer to help him devise his next project about unemployment and the work ethic. There was a promise of future Arts Council money, a room in a licensed squat and help with claiming benefits. I agreed to start the following week.
To give an idea of the nature and depth of radical politics in the London Fringe theatre scene at the time; Bruce’s previous production, The Hello Hello Hello Show, about police corruption, was written and devised by Bruce with members of UPAL - Up Against The Law, a collective of legal activists who among other things had recently worked on the defence team of the Stoke Newington 8 – the Angry Brigade. Bruce Birchall my ‘future employer’ was more than pleased to hear that I was an anarchist and had comrades from my home turf of Southall, who were now living in Ladbroke Grove and were members of UPAL - they could vouch that I was, who I said I was, and not a police or media spy. This was in no way paranoia but a very real concern at the time.
I spent my first night in the Grove at a party in the home of Tom Fawthrop and other UPAL comrades in the basement of 25 Powis Square, the setting, a few years earlier, for the film Performance. Later that night I was given a temporary bed in a squat on the top floor of Colville Gardens overlooking Powis Square. I was told that the occupants were away at a conference - they were two of the women involved in trashing the 1970 Miss World Contest and heckling the MC Bob Hope; there were press cuttings on the wall celebrating the fact.The gay liberation cabaret artiste Betty Borne lived in the flat below.
I then moved into the room beneath Bruce Birchall on the ground floor of 151 Westbourne Park Road at the junction with Great Western Road. It was one of a crumbling terrace of 5 storey Victorian houses soon to be demolished. It had the gaudiest exterior hippie paint job I’d ever seen, which oddly dignified the dereliction. It was known locally as the house with the rainbow door and attracted tourists and photographers. Inside of course it was an absolute tip and my room in the front was previously the residence of the London White Panthers. The view from my window was of oncoming traffic with endless flashing lights indicating left or right. Across the road was another still-standing derelict house, this time covered in graffiti’d slogans and the busy headquarters of Bit Information.
It has to be admitted, and all the gratuitous radical name dropping, only underlines the fact, that I was seriously out of my depth.
Bruce had set up West London Theatre Workshop (WLTW) a year or two earlier and, as the name would suggest, it aspired to mirror the work of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, Stratford East, on the other side of London. Bruce had made his name in the late sixties while still at Cambridge and in 1969 was responsible for one of the early productions in the UK of the famously innovative play about the French revolution Marat/Sade (the first being Peter Brook’s with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964).
Bruce continued experimenting with theatre in and around Cambridge University long after he had officially left. His signature style - the merging of street theatre with political demonstrations became increasingly controversial and brought him into conflict with the forces of law and order; he was finally banned from Cambridge in the purging of political activists after the Garden House Riot of Feb 1970.
With Bruce, everything was political, the personal was political and of course theatre was political. He was a mine of information about radical theatre styles and the politics of the revolutionary left. At first I listened and learned a lot from him; Then I started arguing with him and found him surprisingly accommodating and learned a lot more; he was never my mentor but, in the first half of 1973, I was his sidekick.
One of my most memorable jobs with Bruce was to hold the boom microphone while he videod the proceedings prior to, and during, the all-night ‘Lock In’ of Kensington and Chelsea councillors at All Saints Church Hall. We being the only media on hand, it was a clip from our footage that made the TV news the following day. (See Evening News newspaper article from 9th May 1973.)
Bruce made himself available and was in some demand as a consultant revolutionary arts advisor and I joined him in his chosen vocation. We went to universities and sat in on occupations, we supported workers on picket lines and got involved in numerous political campaigns all over London especially in and around Ladbroke Grove and particularly in housing and squatting. The bottom line of what we did, was to suggest wittier slogans for the banners, beef up the chanting and move the demonstrations into the middle of the road to the stop traffic. At best we organised short agit prop plays of a few minutes duration which got several outings and were used to rabble rouse the supporters and broadcast the demands of the campaigns to the passing public. I jokingly suggested to Bruce that rather than ‘arts advisers’ ‘creative troublemakers’ would be a more appropriate title. He laughed but he was not amused.
I had my problems with Bruce - his undoubted generosity and eagerness to share knowledge, didn’t come from the heart, it was a decision informed by his politics - a particular strain of libertarian communism. This intellectualism, plus his complete lack of personal hygiene made him difficult to work with and almost impossible to live with.
The original show that I’d auditioned for, was never produced, and neither did it secure any development funding from the Arts Council. Despite our inability to devise a script together both Bruce and I agreed to write scripts and present them to each other. The results only underlined what I’d suspected all along - we also had serious theatrical differences.
What was becoming our house-style was not to my taste but I was only one voice in a group of irregulars which comprised of either political activists who favoured what they saw as Bruce’s anti-bourgeois brutalism, and professional actors - fellow-travelling leftists who gave their time and talent free in return for an opportunity to engage in Bruce’s interpretation of popular Brechtian theatre.
This latter category and that theatrical style are clearly in evidence in our only other foray into the mass media on Open Door - a late night BBC TV access television slot. WLTW were co-opted by a group of radical lawyers making the case for increasing legal aid budgets and funding local law centres. We provided the light relief underlining the points made by the talking heads. It was my debut television appearance. (See video)
Bruce said that he shared, my reservations about the blatant didacticism of the Agit Prop street theatre genre, but it soon became clear that he was actually wedded to it. And while I liked the alfresco pantomime ensemble style, it was the earnest finger-wagging tone and the simplistic right-on and rarely funny punchlines that rankled my bones.
This aside, working with and living nextdoor to Bruce, did mean I got to meet a broad range not only of his local connections but those in radical arts and politics; Bruce was a ‘forge links’ man.
After a particularly half-arsed piece of street theatre that Bruce and I had done on a local picket, Bruce invited feedback from other ‘local practitioners’. The aforementioned Betty Bourne buttonholed us in full transvestite make up and gown and berated us with “I do better street theatre than that in the Market buying fruit for breakfast.” He was right. I’d seen him swanning down Portobello bantering with barrow boys and confronting their sexuality. Wonderful!
Portobello Road Market was full of surprises, one Saturday I encountered The Ken Campbell Road Show performing under the Westway. My only memory of it is Dave Hill and another actor lying upside down simulating the gear stick, pedals, driving wheel and seat of an HGV lorry, complete with all the sound effects while Bob Hoskins sat on top of them driving like a man possessed. It was very funny, popular ensemble theatre.
Another big personality in the community at the time was the Playwright and polemical poet of the counter-culture, Heathcote Williams; after I saw him do a spontaneous public reading - eloquent, charismatic and clearly enjoying himself, I was smitten and began to hang out with him. A year later I adopted him as my unofficial mentor. In some ways he was similar to Bruce - another scruffy reluctant guru, but there was no uptightness about Heathcote’s generosity of spirit and freely offered tutorials. He was at ease with himself and through him I met a wilder, far more artistic and bohemian crowd. Later in 1974, after a few escapades opening up empty properties, I would help him launch an estate agency for squatters.
Early in the Summer of 1973 John Miles joined West London Theatre Workshop. John, an old student collaborator of Bruce at Cambridge, had been brought in to help devise our new show, this one was aimed at inner-city kids and this time Bruce’s nose for what the Arts Council would fund, plus his diligent form-filling, landed us enough state money to run an ensemble for a few months. John, a confident northerner was also highly intelligent, insightful and reflective. We hit it off immediately and were bouncing ideas off one and other and laughing a lot from day one. The resulting production that summer of ‘Badman Rides Again.’ toured 28 adventure playgrounds across London.
I played Denis the Menace, John – complete with padding was the portly-and-past-it superhero Captain Truth. The fiendish mad scientist (the eponymous Badman) was played by witty oddball Steve Bould and in the Marty Feldman-style role of Frogwort his hunchback assistant, another of my mates from Southall, Street clown, sax player and new house mate Tom Costello. It was a portentous coincidence that our control freak administrator Bruce, played an assortment of fallguy bureaucrats and authority figures. (more photos)
It was only after a tape recorder, a saxophone and numerous bits n bobs went missing (or nearly went missing) that we realised that it was bad form to take playthings on to a kid’s playsite and then not let the kids play with them. Personally I had other misgivings about performing to kids – they didn’t always appreciate irony.
What I did like and what I was good at, was creating dramatic structures in which talents like John could improvise and flourish and we could both then edit and heighten with witty one-liners; and that became our creative process.
Late that Autumn we wrote and began performing a new play about the housing crisis Dwelling Unit Sweet Dwelling Unit. It featured a ludicrously subservient council worker, played by John, whose job docket orders him to demolish his own home much to the increasing disbelief of his long-suffering wife - played by a very able new recruit Dilys Hilman. It had a three-sided stage-set constructed out of scaffolding and corrugated iron and all of it mounted on shopping trolley castors.
About the same time, and with no bidding from Bruce, I came up with the idea for a heavily ironic 15 minute piece of alfresco audience participation aimed unashamedly at politically aware adults. West London Theatre Workshop performed ‘Story of a Poor Landlord’ (Later to be Squat Now While Stocks Last) at the Powis Square November 5th Bonfire Night celebrations. Meanwhile, in the shadows, at the opposite end of the Square, a posse of our anarchist confederates plus some visiting Lotta Continua (Italian revolutionary socialists) quietly squatted the Talbot Tabernacle, providing the venue for that night’s party and a community centre that has lasted to the present day.
Although the ownership of these two plays was never disputed, it was in fact tenuous. My recollection is that, that by way of severance pay, they became the property of those who created them in a new theatre group that comprised myself and John. We didn’t have an immediate project and John wanted us to include at least one woman; Dilys being an obvious contender; both of us wanted Tom Costello to join. I was quietly adamant about only one thing - the name of the new outfit should be called Rough Theatre.