The idea for The Shakespeare Revue came about on Shakespeare’s birthday, 23 April 1993, when the RSC was planning a celebratory service in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Light relief was needed among more serious readings, and in searching for something, we were reminded of just how many comic writers have used Shakespeare as raw material for their work. Unearthing such pieces became a hobby, until eventually the outline of a stage show began to emerge.
The songs and sketches in the show are drawn from a range of work which represents the development of revue itself - from Music Hall to Victoria Wood, via Herbert Farjeon, Alan Melville, Cambridge Footlights and the Fringe. Of all the theatrical forms, revue is one of the least documented. With no authoritative reference book to guide us, our quest for material took us from the Manuscript Collection of the British Library to a home for retired variety performers in Twickenham, via June Whitfield’s attic.
The Shakespeare Revue had its first performance at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in 1994 as a one-night charity event. The following year it joined the RSC repertoire at the Barbican Theatre, and subsequently transferred to the West End, opening at the Vaudeville Theatre with a cast featuring Janie Dee, Susie Blake, Martin Connor and the authors. In 1999 we directed the American première at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre and since then there have been productions of the show all over the world from Cape Town to Rome.
Christopher Luscombe and Malcolm McKee
Whatever happened to revue? Back in the Fifties it was a staple of the London, and indeed the English provincial, theatre scene. As an alternative to the complex plots and characters of straight drama it offered a light-hearted selection of song, dance, monologue and sketch, which flowed together to make an entertaining evening. Then in 1961 along came the considerable comic talents of Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as writers and performers in Beyond the Fringe - from which comes one of tonight’s sketches ‘So That’s the Way You Like It’. Originally commissioned for the Edinburgh Festival, Beyond the Fringe was a contemporary, slightly hard-edged and far funnier satirical version of the revue format. So . . . what happened to revue? It packed its bags and decamped to television where it split into two parts: late-night satire, spear-headed by That Was The Week That Was, and entertainments with a more audience-friendly ‘variety’ format such as The Morecombe and Wise Show, The Two Ronnies and Victoria Wood . . . as Seen on TV - where we first discovered Miss Wood’s take on Hamlet, ‘Giving Notes’.
Revue originated in Paris in mid 19th century as a satirical end of term, let-your-hair-down ‘revue’ (review) of the year. Like many things Gallic - from crème brulée to Sacha Distel - this humorous mix of words and music soon made the journey across The Channel. The first proper English-style revue was Under the Clock (the clock being a design feature of The Times newspaper’s index page) produced by Seymour Hicks in 1893. With the arrival of American popular music in the late Edwardian era, revue really took off and soon the fronts of West End theatres were emblazoned with the snappy titles of big production entertainments: Hullo America!, Hullo Rag-time!, Zig-Zag!, Buzz-buzz and Pick-a-dilly.
The golden age of revue lasted from the early 1920s to the late 1950s and for much of that time its greatest practitioner was Noël Coward who wrote and appeared in a succession of popular entertainments on both sides of the Atlantic: London Calling! (1923), On with the Dance (1925), This Year of Grace (1928), Words and Music (1932), Sigh No More (1945) and The Globe Revue (1952). For these shows Coward composed a string of dazzling hit songs which are still admired and performed today: ‘Mrs Worthington’, ‘Mad About the Boy’, ‘Nina’, ‘I Went to a Marvellous Party’, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, ‘London Pride’ and ‘A Room with A View’ to name but a few.
Other ‘intimate revue’ successes in the 1940s and 50s included Sweetest and Lowest, Airs on a Shoestring, Pieces of Eight, and the 1956 hit, For Amusement Only from which we plundered Alan Melville’s outrageous sketch ‘Wherefore Art Thou, Juliet?’ in which he pits a hapless Romeo against a fearsome Lady Macbeth. These long-running entertainments were the breeding ground for a brace of talented performers including Kenneth Williams, Maggie Smith, Hermione Gingold, Beryl Reid, Dora Bryan, Sheila Hancock, Ian Carmichael and Fenella Fielding.
When we were creating The Shakespeare Revue, we tried to use the best of the old-style revue writers: Stephen Fry, Cole Porter, Ned Sherrin and Tom Lehrer - who, having seen the Revue in the West End, wrote a new version of the music hall song The Night I Appeared as Macbeth and popped it in the post! We also commissioned pieces from some of the best contemporary writers of revue material: Fascinating Aïda’s Dillie Keane and Adèle Anderson, Maureen Lipman, Perry Pontac, and the Olivier Award-winning writers of Mary Poppins, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. So - we have our material; next comes that bugbear for all revue writers - the ‘running order’. Noël Coward writes:
‘I first learned about running order, that endlessly fascinating and always essential aspect of revue, from [the producer] André Charlot when I appeared and wrote much of the material for London Calling! in 1923. He would have the names of all the numbers in the revue printed on separate cards, place them on his desk and then, as though playing Patience, juggle with them and go on moving them about, shifting them again and again until he was satisfied that they were in the right running order.’
This technique was imparted to us by the writer of The Boy Friend, Sandy Wilson, when we met him to discuss ‘Give Us A Rest’ - a song for Hamlet, Juliet and Henry V which he had composed for the 1951 revue See You Later. We have been using the same method ever since; let us hope that tonight’s cards have been shuffled correctly. But that’s the great thing about revue: if you don’t like one particular song or sketch, stick around, because there will be another along in approximately three minutes.
© Christopher Luscombe & Malcolm McKee
In a speech a few years ago, the Prince of Wales pointed out that ‘Shakespeare’s language is ours, his roots ours, his culture is ours.’ It is this common ground that has enabled us to compile The Shakespeare Revue, for it seems that satirical writers - from Cole Porter and Tom Lehrer to Monty Python and Victoria Wood - whose humour relies on easily identified cultural references, have regularly plundered Shakespeare for their own comic purposes. ‘The Music Hall Shakespeare’, written at the turn of the 19th century, takes a number of the plays and sets them to the musical hits of the day, ‘To be or not to be’ neatly fitting ‘Let’s All Go Down the Strand’. It even includes a rare Henry VIII send-up; this time the song is, appropriately, ‘It’s A Different Girl Again’.
Modern ‘spectacular’ revue, as epitomised by The Ziegfeld Follies, flourished in the early decades of the 20th century but literary satire best suited the later development of ‘intimate‘ revue, with its emphasis on content rather than form. A leading practitioner was Herbert Farjeon, whose song ‘Moody Dane’ from Nine Sharp (1938) was one of four songs portraying various Shakespeare characters as heroes of the silver screen: ‘Smile a smile dear, dry your eyes, / Try not to soliloquize . . .’
Another master of the format was Alan Melville whose outrageous Romeo and Juliet sketch from For Amusement Only (1956) is another favourite among revue buffs. Here, a young actor begins the balcony scene (‘But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?’) only to find his Juliet literally forgetting which day of the week it is, and launching into her Lady Macbeth (‘Come to my woman’s breasts / And take my milk for gall . . .’) Of course Melville isn’t so much sending up the plays themselves as he is the hapless actors, hijacked by the repertoire system with its obsessive repetition of certain texts (if it’s Tuesday it must be Romeo). In the revue See You Later (1951) Sandy Wilson picks up on this with his number ‘Give Us A Rest’, in which Hamlet, Juliet and Henry V plead for a moratorium: ‘We’re fed up with being acted / And we’d like to be subtracted / From the repertoire of every company.’
The most famous example of Shakespearean references in a popular song is ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ from Cole Porter’s masterpiece Kiss Me Kate. He had at first resisted the idea of a musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, but it ran for 1,077 performances on Broadway in the 1940s, and the lyrics still seem fresh, funny and daring: ‘When your baby is pleading for pleasure, / Let her sample your Measure for Measure.’
The increasingly satirical revues of the 1960s found a rich seam in Shakespeare, most famously in Beyond the Fringe (‘Get thee to Gloucester, Essex’ etc) which made stars of Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore. Cambridge Circus, a Footlights revue from 1963 which transferred to the West End and Broadway, launched the careers of Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, John Cleese and Graham Chapman and included a sketch for two Elizabethan comics doing stand-up at Shakespeare’s Globe: ‘I’ve been having trouble with the Black Death. / Wilt thou leave my mother-in-law out of this.’ The stars of these revues soon moved on to television where their writing flourished in programmes such as Ned Sherrin’s TW3 and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. An episode of the latter featured Eric Idle as ‘The Man Who Speaks in Anagrams’, busy translating The Complete Works - from Two Netlemeg of Verona to Twelfth Thing.
When we invited composers and lyricists to contribute new material to The Shakespeare Revue back in 1995, it was remarkable that the subject matter was never duplicated - it seems that Shakespeare provides an inexhaustible supply of satirical targets. True, we did have to steer people away from too much Hamlet, but a wide range of topics was addressed by our writers. Dillie Keane and Adèle Anderson tackled the English lesson in Henry V; Maureen Lipman was inspired by Fiona Shaw’s Richard II at the National Theatre to ponder other potential transvestite casting; Laurence Phillips and Carlton Edwards cast their satirical gaze on Shakespeare in the opera house; and with their song ‘In Shakespeare’s Day’, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe eavesdropped on the gripes and grumbles of backstage staff at the RSC.
If Prince Charles has his way, Shakespeare will retain his central position in our cultural life; but maybe he shouldn’t worry too much. In Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year Ben Elton’s BBC sitcom Upstart Crow not only scored laughs off the Bard but managed jokes at the expense of Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe too. Who would have thought it?