Popular theatre

Share

Plays

Blood Brothers

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A compelling story of friendship, loyalty and fate, Blood Brothers is one of the longest-running and most successful ever West End musicals, as well as one of the most moving.

Twin brothers are separated at birth because their mother cannot afford to keep them both; one of them is given away to a wealthy woman, the other remains with his mother. They become friends and swear to be blood brothers, all the time unaware of their true fraternity. But as they grow older, the two brothers find they can no longer ignore the class difference that divides them, and the love triangle that has dominated their lives erupts into a quarrel. The staggeringly emotional climax of the play questions whether it was destiny, or the inevitable difference of class, that led to the fatal conflict of two brothers who were once so close. Blood Brothers was first performed at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983.

Breezeblock Park

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Set on a Liverpool Housing estate in the run up to Christmas, Breezeblock Park is a comedy about the ups and downs of family life. Betty is preparing the decorations for her guest, and making her house neat and tidy for her guests. But what she hopes will be a respectable Christmas gathering of her daughter Sandra, brother Tim and sister Reeny, becomes a maelstrom of drunken bickering and petty recriminations when Sandra reveals the shocking news that she is pregnant.

One of Russell's first plays, Breezeblock Park was first presented in 1975 at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool before transferring to London that same year.

Educating Rita (Modern Classic)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Educating Rita is a play for two actors about a working-class woman’s hunger for education, knowledge and culture, and her friendship with a weary, alcoholic, failed poet-cum-lecturer.

Susan is a hairdresser who feels that there must be more to life than having children, so she renames herself 'Rita' after her favourite fictional character and applies for an Open University course in English Literature. Set entirely in the scholarly clutter of Dr Frank Bryant’s office, the play follows Rita’s efforts to escape her old life, and her blossoming into a literary connoisseur under Frank’s sporadic direction. Terribly funny and terribly sad, the play is both a comic masterwork and a poignant examination of education, class and disillusionment.

Educating Rita premiered at the Warehouse Theatre, London, in 1980. It was subsequently made into a highly successful film with Michael Caine and Julie Walters. This revised version was first performed in 2002 at the Liverpool Playhouse.

Educating Rita (Student Edition)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

This Student Edition of Educating Rita provides a wealth of scholarly information, annotation and background to aid the study of Russell's much-loved play.

Educating Rita is a play for two actors about a working-class woman’s hunger for education, knowledge and culture, and her friendship with a weary, alcoholic, failed poet-cum-lecturer. This Methuen Drama Student Edition includes extensive notes for students and teachers of the play.

Susan is a hairdresser who feels that there must be more to life than having children, so she renames herself 'Rita' after her favourite fictional character and applies for an Open University course in English Literature. Set entirely in the scholarly clutter of Dr Frank Bryant’s office, the play follows Rita’s efforts to escape her old life, and her blossoming into a literary connoisseur under Frank’s sporadic direction. Terribly funny and terribly sad, the play is both a comic masterwork and a poignant examination of education, class and disillusionment.

Educating Rita premiered at the Warehouse Theatre, London, in 1980. It was subsequently made into a highly successful film with Michael Caine and Julie Walters. This revised version was first performed in 2002 at the Liverpool Playhouse.

Harrogate

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Harrogate tells the story of a father struggling to confront his obsessions head-on without destroying his family. It is a play about how we perform versions of ourselves depending on what company we keep, and how we project onto others versions of the people we want to see, rather than accepting who stands in front of us.

The play is a triptych about obsession, repression and lust.

One for the Road (Russell)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

One for the Road is an almost farcical comedy about one dinner party too many, as Dennis loses patience with domesticity and makes a break for the freedom of the open road.

Dennis and Pauline live in a bungalow in Phase Two of a northern housing estate, and are serving hachis a parmentier to their guests Jane and Roger. Pauline is very pleased about this. Dennis is less enthusiastic – he will be forty tomorrow, feels like he is wasting his life, and would rather they just called it cottage pie. Outside, Dennis’s parents are lost on the estate, and vandals are decapitating garden gnomes and obscenely vandalising vegetables.

As Dennis’s anarchic streak reveals itself, what was supposed to be an impeccably middle-class dinner becomes a first-class row about middle age, affairs, and what’s locked in the bureau.

Russell’s hilarious and sharply observed play was first performed at the Lyric Theatre, London in 1987.

Our Day Out

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Our Day Out is an account of a school trip for students from a remedial class: hilarious, chaotic and lively, but tinged with the suggestion that the disadvantaged children have little else to look forward to.

Mrs Kay’s ‘Progress Class’ are unleashed for a day’s coach trip to Conway Castle in Wales, stopping off at the café, the zoo, the beach and the funfair, the children taking advantage of the numerous opportunities to bicker, fool around, steal and get lost. Russell presents an exuberant celebration of the joys and agonies of growing up and being footloose, fourteen and free from school. But this is more than a romp – Our Day Out points up the depressing present and empty future for these comprehensive-school children from the backstreets of Liverpool, for whom a day out is as much as they can expect.

This tender comedy was originally written for television and transmitted as a BBC ‘Play for Today’ in 1976. It was later adapted for the stage and first performed in 1983 at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool.

Shirley Valentine

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The vivid and witty voice of Shirley Valentine, a middle-aged and put-upon housewife, narrates her own epiphany in Russell’s moving and influential comic monologue about personal and sexual identity.

Shirley is used to talking to the kitchen wall. Her husband pays her no attention unless his dinner isn’t on the table the moment he walks through the door, and so the running monologue she delivers while preparing his egg and chips is the closest she comes to a conversation. Her friend Jane has invited her on holiday to Greece, but of course she’s not going to go. Her husband would have no-one to cook his dinner or do his ironing.

But as she talks to the wall and cooks the chips, she realises that all she wants is to drink a glass of wine by the sea, and live her life again.

Shirley Valentine was first performed in 1986 at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool.

Stags & Hens

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Unknown to each other, Linda and Dave have decided to have their respective hen and stag parties in the same tacky Liverpool club – or more accurately, in its toilets. With the girls applying make-up, doing their hair and crying in cubicles, and the boys puking into the lavatory and drawing on the walls, the whole of Stags and Hens takes place in the Ladies and Gents.

Both parties are out on the pull, after a night (or even just a few minutes) of passion – with the exception of the groom, who is throwing up after the curry, and the bride, who is having second thoughts. Russell’s raucous, coarse, and very funny play is a brilliant depiction of what passes for courtship, and the squeals, jeers and flings considered a necessary prelude to getting married.

Stags and Hens premiered in 1978 at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool; the updated text, entitled Stags and Hens – The Remix was produced at the Royal Court, Liverpool, in 2008.

Often known as ‘People’s Theatre’, these terms have been used interchangeably and there has been some confusion over to what manner of theatrical presentation each refers. This varies according to class viewpoint and ideological affiliations. The debate goes back to fifth-century Athens when – one view has it – theatre could only be popular, i.e. of the people, since no other theatre existed; by contrast, the hierarchical society of Rome and the city- and nation-states which succeeded it created quite clear distinctions between elite forms of theatre and popular amusements.

It was not until the run-up to the French Revolution of 1789 that consideration was given to theatrical expression of ‘the people’ as socially unifying, and thence in the 1850s to a concept of theatre to be taken to the people, transcending class conflicts and working for social stability but, in fact, thereby promoting the interests of the middle class. In the second half of the nineteenth century, with the bourgeoisie firmly seated as the rising, if not dominant, class, people’s theatre as a possibility was shelved. The Paris Commune of 1871 issued a set of decrees for the theatre but was not in power long enough to put them into practice; yet this rising, and the presence of other political unrest towards the turn of the century, restored the matter of a people’s theatre to the agenda. After various attempts to create theatres in the suburbs of Paris, Romain Rolland set out to establish the case for a people’s theatre and became the spokesman for a considerable movement in the 1890s and the early years of the twentieth century to establish theatres in working-class districts, funded by the French government.

In cases where the interests of the middle class could be identified with a movement for national liberation, as they could in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, the term ‘national theatre’ had a specific symbolic function. Elsewhere it became the institutional instrument through which the values of the bourgeoisie were disseminated and its traumas depicted and dissected. Such theatres included the original independent theatre, Antoine’s Théâtre Libre, and Brahm’s Deutsches Theater. On these stages, the plays of the reformers Ibsen and Hauptmann, and the traumatists Chekhov and Strindberg, were performed. These theatres, more than Rolland and his cries for an independent people’s theatre, were to be the influential instruments of bourgeois proselytization.

What seemed to be wanted was the Freie Volksbühne movement, founded in Berlin in 1890, which was a very sophisticated instrument for taking theatre to the people. Backed by a mass membership, the Freie Volksbühne could afford to rent performances or even commission performances (from the middle-class theatres) at times when workers could attend. Almost as soon as it started, the contradictions in its operation were exposed by some members of the organizing body, who preferred to see plays promoted which directly reflected the values and interests of the working class. The questions raised were: ‘Should we have theatre for the people or theatre by the people?’ and/ or: ‘Should the purpose be education in theatre or education through theatre?’ The schism provoked a breakaway movement, the Neue Freie Volksbühne, which followed a more political policy, less successfully than its progenitor.

In France, the movement for a people’s theatre petered out. Firmin Gémier created the significantly named Théâtre National Ambulant, which made two tours in the years before the 1914–18 war with a largely populist repertoire but with the important intention of eventually touring the nucleus of productions and involving local people wherever they went. The project was cumbersome and expensive and went no further. Gémier was given a white elephant of a theatre in Paris as the Théâtre National Populaire. The Trocadero was sited in a middle-class district and he was given no budget with which to mount productions.

The two events which provoked the next important developments were the First World War and the Russian Revolution. In Germany, Erwin Piscator was at the centre of many initiatives made possible by the existence of a mass membership Communist Party. Piscator redefined the orientation of people’s theatre as proletarian theatre. A popular theatre was to ally itself to the most advanced section of the working class, that is the Communist Party. Piscator’s theatre aimed at political education. According to Brecht, Piscator ‘saw the theatre as a parliament, the audience as a legislative body. To this parliament were submitted in plastic form all the great questions that needed an answer… It was the stage’s ambition to supply images, statistics, slogans which would enable its parliament, the audience, to reach political decisions.’ Piscator’s vision of theatre involved direct intervention in the lives of the audience. His form was that of epic theatre. The dramatic form would no longer suffice to articulate the questions of the day. The theatre would return to its didactic purpose, reinforced by all the possible resources of the modern theatre. Actuality, in the form of documentary film, was incorporated into the stage action. Scripts were constructed by a collective as Piscator considered it was no longer possible for one writer to understand the full economic and political complexity of the world. For the Communist Party he mounted two large-scale revues – utilizing popular theatre forms and using montage to replace the bourgeois drama. The achievements of Piscator were many. The limitations were that he was drawn into a fascination with expensive stage machinery, which could be supported only by solid backing from the wealthier patrons, and the preference of the Communist Party for a less dialectical form which could transmit party propaganda more directly and simply. Much of Brecht’s pre-exile work followed Piscator’s lead, but the Lehrstücke were designed to teach by participation; workers learned by taking part in theatre pieces which demanded political decisions.

After the Russian Revolution, people’s/popular theatre was located for the first time within a state dedicated to rule by the proletariat and peasantry. As a minority ruling party, the Bolsheviks needed to mobilize quickly the support of these two groups, many of whom were illiterate and could not be reached by printed matter. In a series of imaginative approaches to these problems, theatre was used to inform and arouse through agitational propaganda (agitprop) and through the form of living newspaper – the news performed in a variety of theatrical styles and forms. These techniques were honed to a very fine degree after 1922 by the Blue Blouses. Beginning as one professional group in Moscow, the Blue Blouses became a nationwide movement, incorporating professional and amateur factory groups and involving thousands of people. The Blue Blouses created their programmes out of a montage of ‘attractions’ or popular theatre forms dance, song, sketches, acrobatics. The content mixed exhortation with satire against the excesses, corruption and inefficiency of the Soviet bureaucracy. Their programmes were designed to be played in any circumstances with a minimum of resources.

In the years around 1922 the Russians also revived, in their changed context, the form of the people’s festival celebrating and sometimes restaging the events of the Revolution. The most famous of these mass spectacles was The Storming of the Winter Palace (1924) which reconstructed the revolutionary events in Leningrad. The early living newspapers were later developed to an extraordinary level of skill and sophistication during the Federal Theater Project in the United States in the mid-1930s. Through this form the political stage was able to counter the bias of the mass capitalist press. However, the form which became the mainstream workers’ theatre, as it now became known, was agitprop in the style practised by the Blue Blouses. Ironically, one year before Stalin disbanded the movement in 1928, the original group was sent to Germany as part of the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Representatives of the working-class movement from all parts of the world were in Germany and saw the group perform. As a result, political agitprop groups sprang up in every place where labour engaged with capital and where popular resistance movements opposed invaders or aggressors. The general pattern of work was based round sketches, mass declamations and songs, usually written for specific occasions at very short notice. The streets and rallies provided the audiences. Although standards varied from country to country and group to group, the speed of writing, lack of rehearsal and the subjection of aesthetic or artistic means to political necessity of the ‘message’ limited the growth of this form to any sort of maturity. After 1935, with Hitler in power and fascist aggression rising, class struggles were subdued in the interest of national or popular front movements to resist the dictators.

In those Western countries where workers’ theatre was not suppressed, it tended to go indoors and form working-class theatres with a broad rather than aggressive political policy (such as the Unity Theatre in London). The material prosperity of most Western societies between 1945 and 1968 led to a decline in overtly political theatre or workers’ theatre, though not in people’s theatre. In the years after 1945 the term was not used, and it became more common to refer to popular theatre. This term covered two concepts. First, there was a drive to make theatre more accessible to a wider, more demotic audience. The French pattern of decentralizing the theatre away from the Paris boulevards is the prime example of this, although the search for a new public went much wider than France. In the second use of the term, the ‘popular’ refers to style, form or technique. Even before the 1939–45 war there had been a long history of experimentation in the European theatre, particularly in France and Russia, to revive and develop both the acting styles of previous ages, like the commedia dell’arte, which were seen as appealing to a popular audience, and to incorporate acting styles from the circus or clowning. Postwar prosperity allowed some people to cross the old class lines, which were becoming more blurred and permeable, through increased opportunities in education, and this led to an intermixing of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.

The various forms of political unrest and action in 1968 led to a resurgence of political theatre in many forms, largely eclipsing popular theatre or relegating it to its populist, social integratory position. For a brief period theatre emerged again on the streets as guerilla theatre, theatricalized happenings or actions attempting to intervene in political events or, in a situationist manner, provoke authority to show its repressive nature in retaliation. Agitprop also reappeared as street theatre. After these early days there was a widespread growth of theatre groups usually termed ‘radical theatre’ in the United States and political theatre in Britain. The great majority of these groups were formed by left-wing socialist intellectuals operating independently of political parties. In their work they adopted counter-hegemonic stances and, in a world becoming more complex and confusing, tried to raise working-class consciousness and to demystify the operations of international capitalism, its forms of oppression and exploitation. The British writer John McGrath defined the function of this form of theatre as promoting ‘the social, political and cultural development of the working class towards maturity and hegemony… [it is] a form of theatre, which is searching, through the experience and forms of the working-class, for those elements which point forward in the struggle together to resolve humanity’s conflict with nature, and to allow all to grow to the fullest possible experience of life on earth.’

By the end of the twentieth century, to a large extent, this movement belonged to the past, although there was still a considerable residue of the groups in existence. The fall of socialist regimes in Europe after 1989 and the revelations of the corruption and incompetence that they had sheltered confused the principles of socialism with its flawed practice. Since most political theatre of an agitational kind had as its aim participating in the process of hastening the end of the capitalist system and supplanting it with socialism, the work of these groups seemed to be rendered generally unpopular and had to be rethought on more sophisticated lines. Many of those who were previously involved in radical or political theatre now turned to attempting political change inside the institutions of bourgeois society. The existence of a mass working-class audience in television, coupled with the failure of many groups to build a solid working-class audience in the theatre, is one reason for this. There has been a movement away from national initiatives towards regional action and this provoked an aggressive growth of new theatre groups. There has similarly been a movement away from mass political action to forms of theatre which work closely with clearly defined specific audiences. Many developments in women’s theatre, gay theatre and black theatre, or theatre in prisons or with the homeless, follow this line of popular or political theatre.

from Clive Barker, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).