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A Coffee Table Book For Theatre

February 14, 2008

I've been delving into London Stage in the 20th Century, Robert Tanitch's massive, hardback album aimed at chronicling every major stage production in the British capital during the last century. At last, a coffee table book devoted to theatre!

Like most books made for prominent display on a modish, leather pouffe rather than a bookshelf, the book doesn't have a great deal of depth to it though it is a thing of beauty. It's not really an encyclopedia either (despite the fact that it's been described that way in some of the reviews). The entries for each production (organized by date starting in 1900) don't all have the same amount of detail in them. It makes sense that entries like the one on the original production John Osborne's Look Back in Anger in 1956 are several times as long as, say, the one on the 1941 production of George Black's Gangway. Yet you never quite know what you're going to get. Some entries contain information culled from reviews, seemingly complete cast and production team lists and cryptic editorial comments from the author (e.g. on Alastair Sim as Captain Hook in Peter Pan: "Sim, avuncular and balefully comic, was absolutely determined not to frighten the children.") Others simply give one cursory sentence acknowledging that yes indeed a performance of a play did take place on a certain date.

The author also takes a stab at providing context by sticking in important world events throughout the book as they took place, from VJ Day in 1945 to the murder of John Lennon in 1980. Important events in the world of the performing arts are also included.

The most delightful thing about the book are the pictures. The album is adorned with gorgeous old photos. Some of my faves:

- Sarah Bernhardt looking like Napoleon in a tight, white military uniform in a 1901 production of Edmon Rostand's L'Aiglon. A walrus-like man dressed in black stands to attention by her side as she tweaks his handlebar mustache. He has a wary look in his eye.

- Richard Attenborough in ganster's garb lurking and scheming in a 1943 stage adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. (Apparently Greene didn't like the stage version.)

- A picture of the assembled cast including Peter Ustinov and John Gielgud for a 1946 production of Crime and Punishment which looks like it could have been painted by a 16th century Dutch master.

- Mia Farrow looking satanic in an Edwardian gown in a 1975 production of Harley Granville Barker's The Marrying of Ann Leete.

- Two butt-naked spiky-haired blokes sitting on the ground with their backs to the camera looking upstage at a couple of upright, armor-clad Roman soldiers in the 1980 National Theatre production of Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain.

London Stage in the 20th Century may be a light read, but the breadth of its scope is startling. Besides being fun to dip in and out of over a cup of tea, its greatest value may lie in enabling readers to spot trends over time. It's fascinating to chart the evolution of the kinds of themes and staging concepts that theatre makers employed at different times during the century. The book is really a series of snapshots that can be strung together to create a panoramic view.

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