Memory: My First Ever Theatre Visit

Production photograph - Black Comedy - Maggie Smith - Photographer Manuel Harlan - 1965 - H20xW25cm

It was 1962 and I was in the sixth form at Bognor Regis Grammar School (long gone). A small group of us found out that there were a number of cheap tickets available on the day of performance and we fancied the adventure of queuing through the night on the pavement with our sleeping bags.

That is how I got to see Joan Plowright in St. Joan.  Shortly after that I saw Uncle Vanya with an amazing cast, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Sybil Thorndike , Lewis Casson, Fay Compton.  I don’t think I realised at the time that my first experience of theatre at the age of 16 was world class stuff and I got it for quite a small price.

I recall that the theatre restaurant  was in a separate building then and the speciality was danish open sandwiches (which no-one had heard of at the time) and they were unbelievably expensive. I only ever tried one and the price of a few prawns with a blob of mayonnaise  and dill garnish on a small square of rye bread was more than I had paid for my ticket to see the best actors in the world onstage.

In 1965 I was already asleep on the pavement with my friends and a small group of actors came out of the theatre, I guess after quite a late and long session at the bar.  One of them was Albert Finney and his sense of balance was not very good at that moment so he tripped over me and woke me up (my fault I guess –  I was lying on the ground in his way!).

He was then very keen for all of us all to be awake and he wanted to engage us in amusing conversation.  A female companion pulled him away and she said (I do remember the exact words) “Leave then alone – weren’t you ever young?”  I have heard lines delivered by Maggie Smith many times since then but never when lying at her feet as I was that that night.

My adolescent experiences at CFT were the start of an addiction to theatre from which I have never recovered and I still regularly come back to Sussex from Amsterdam (where I now live) to productions at the theatre.

From: Mike Williams

Memory: Talking Heads (1996)

Maggie Smith in Bed Amongst the Lentils
Maggie Smith in ‘Bed Amongst the Lentils’


Shortly after her towering and award-winning performance at Wyndham’s in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, Maggie Smith’s next stage role was entirely different but perhaps even more extraordinary. In the small Minerva Theatre at Chichester, she recreated her television role in Alan Bennett’s Talking HeadsBed among the Lentils (also directed by Alan Bennett). In the space of 50 minutes she performed the monologue, and was extremely funny (“…Geoffrey’s bad enough…but I’m glad I wasn’t married to Jesus…”), but in an instant she silenced the entire audience, moved many to tears, and in the last 10 minutes you could hear a pin drop in that very small studio theatre, with Smith standing only feet away. I still remember the lengthy pause at the very end before people felt they could applaud. Richard Eyre in his diaries referred to the performance as, “Maggie Smith, on her own, in a class of her own”„, while the Independent’s critic Paul Taylor said it was “brilliant beyond belief”„, and Jack Tinker simply said that “Smith is ahead of the rest”.

The monologue was paired with Soldiering On, performed by Margaret Tyzack, a close friend of Maggie Smith. It is a very tricky monologue, relying hugely on dramatic irony, but Tyzack achieved the delicate balance between showing enough intelligence while also hinting at self-delusion in a highly subtle and moving performance.

Margaret Tyzack in Soldiering On
Margaret Tyzack in ‘Soldiering On’


The entire production was a highlight of the 1990s at Chichester, and was a commercial success too: it transferred shortly after to the Comedy Theatre (as it was then called), and was even revived ten years later in 2005 to tour New Zealand and Australia (in a remounted production directed by Anthony Page), where Smith won the Best Actress award of the year at the Helpmann Awards. Memories of this Chichester production may have faded due to Smith’s deserved success in another Bennett play a few years later, The Lady in the Van, but it deserves to be added to the list of Dame Maggie’s other definitive performances at Chichester…like Millamant in The Way of the World, or Desdemona in Othello.

From: Paul Burditt