Part of my job involves a fair amount of detective work (sadly no deerstalker and pipe needed – although working in a theatre means props are never far away if dressing up is called for, which of course it always is). I was recently asked to track down some press cuttings regarding a production of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads performed in the Minerva in 1991. This production saw the playwright himself reading through his own monologues and pieces of prose alongside CFT stalwart, Patricia Routledge. All our press cuttings from 1970 onwards are currently organised by years (albeit non-chronological) into File Express boxes which are kept at a secure warehouse where we can recall them if we need to take a look at what’s inside.
I managed to find the cuttings relatively quickly which revealed a great critical reverence to the playwright and his brave decision to perform his own work. Not only do press cuttings allow for an understanding of critical reception, but also show the breadth of press past CFT productions have attracted. Tracking which publications have reviewed shows is very interesting, particularly in terms of the reach of a regional theatre over London venues, as is looking at the social history whereby writing styles and presentation vary year to year. As lovely as these press cuttings were (and at which point I could have hung up my metaphorical deerstalker) something else in the box caught my eye. The press cuttings are generally all gathered into plastic wallets; amongst these was a rather tatty looking ring-binder folder labelled ‘PRESS CUTTINGS: 1980’. Now it’s inevitable that with the sort of work that we do, certain productions stick out for certain reasons and a play called Terra Nova is one such production – mainly because it sticks out for lots of other people.
We have a wonderful collection of oral history clips describing this production and recently procured Pamela Howard’s (the designer) original model box of the set (which I may or may not have replicated in cake form for CFT’s Bake Off earlier in the year). Terra Nova formed part of the 1980 season so my curiosity was piqued by this press cuttings folder. As I opened it up and turned to the corresponding tab, the first thing I came across was a handwritten letter. “Shouldn’t this be reviews?” I thought to myself. As I read on I realised they were indeed reviews, though not the kind I was expecting to see.
A local school had come to see the play and the visiting students had all written letters to the Theatre to express their thanks and enjoyment (for the most part anyway!) In true ‘kids will say anything’ style, the comments were rather frank and honest, though fully appreciative and made for wonderful reading. Their reactions to certain parts of the play painted such an evocative portrait of what it would have been like and they are a wonderful addition to the archive. There were also heartfelt copies of letters sent to Pamela Howard by Charles Swithinbank and his daughter, Carol. Charles had been a key advisor on the production, as he specialised in the history of Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole (which formed the basis of the play) expressing his congratulations and how his “eyes were moist through much of it”.
Just another example of jigsaw pieces all coming together to form a bigger picture – not just of individual shows, but of CFT’s connection with the local community and wider press. And for this detective, I hope the case never to be closed.