Jeremy Kingston has been theatre critic with the Times, and formerly Punch, for many years. He’s also a celebrated playwright.
We caught up with him to ask about his play Making Dickie Happy, which is to be revived at the Tristan Bates Theatre in a brand new production for March 2013. Tickets are available from their Box Office.
Along the way we discovered his reaction to the revival of Making Dickie Happy; what it’s like having your colleagues review your work; and how it feels to have Lord Mountbatten’s daughters in the audience for a play you’ve written about their father…
Jeremy, where did the idea for ‘Making Dickie Happy’ come from?
A man I knew was honeymooning on Burgh Island, off the south coast of Devon, which I’d never heard of before. He was staying at the Art Deco Burgh Island Hotel, where people like Lord Mountbatten, Noël Coward and Agatha Christie had all been. I thought, gracious me, there must be a play in that! All these people together on an island – almost like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which she set on this island. And then I came across the most extraordinary coincidence that connected Mountbatten with Agatha Christie. He’d suggested the plot of the novelThe Murder Of Roger Ackroyd which made her famous in the mid-1920s because [spoiler alert!] the man who was telling the story, the Doctor Watson character, turned out to be the murderer. This had never been done before. Mountbatten, who you wouldn’t have thought knew the front of a book from the back of a book had come up with this strange idea. I thought, what does that suggest about his mind? And I made Agatha Christie think that same question. It took off from there. Obviously they have to have boyfriends and girlfriends and things like that to build the story. That’s how it began. Whether or not they met one another on this island I have no idea – but playwrights can take whatever liberties they like.
There are three historical characters in it – Mountbatten, Noël Coward and Agatha Christie – did you worry about portraying relatively recently-deceased high profile people, who still have family living?
Noël Coward less so: his boyfriend Graham Payn died during the initial run of the show, I think. But no, I don’t think so. I’m not presenting it as a Newsnight item. Having said that, two of Mountbatten’s daughters came to see the original production in 2004. I was in a state of terror during the performance sitting behind them, and I knew that any minute there’d be certain lines coming up… but they took it very well! The elder daughter, Countess Mountbatten, said, “An interesting development of an idea,” which suggests she didn’t believe in it for a moment but she was interested in what had been done.
Did they recognise anything of their father in your written portrayal of him?
They didn’t say so. I did some research into the way Mountbatten spoke, and how he thought, in so far as one can with somebody like that. All three historical characters took great care of their private lives. Agatha Christie was a very private person. Coward created himself, and Mountbatten was always polishing his image.
Did you find any of the historical characters easier to write for, or more of a pleasure to give words to?
I did enjoy writing Noël Coward’s crisp witticisms – they’re very satisfying to do if you can get the style right. Agatha Christie was more difficult because as any playwright will tell you – getting someone who keeps herself or himself very private to reveal things so you understand about them in the course of two acts can be quite tricky. There’s a scene in the second act just between herself and Noël Coward with Coward probing her so that she’s obliged to come up with information so that I was able to reveal stuff about her then. But I enjoyed writing about all three, as well as the imagined characters who flesh out the play. As well as the three real ones there’s three invented ones.
What ideas were you trying to get across with the play?
What happens when we stop being in love with people? What happens when we start being in love with people? They all have different ideas about love. Agatha Christie’s on the island having a dry run to escape from her husband. Mountbatten is wondering whether to marry his wealthy Edwina when he doesn’t have two pennies to rub together – he’s engaged to a multi-millionaire’s daughter. And Noël Coward has a boyfriend, but unknown to him at the beginning of the play, that too is under strain. It’s the tugs of being in love and having a love affair, a marriage or a partnership and the strains they suffer from.
‘Making Dickie Happy’ is being revived for March 2013, and will this time play at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Is that a good venue for it?
It’s a very nice theatre. The two guys who run it do seem to be having good ideas. I reviewed a play there more recently – Silver Shores – a powerful piece. The design was very clever, which gave the impression of low decks on a slave ship. It’s not a huge stage. If you had the National Theatre I suppose you could have any effects you wanted to. The Tristan Bates is almost opposite the St. Martin’s Theatre where Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is still running, a lovely coincidence! You could go from a matinee in one to an evening performance of the other!
What was your reaction to Robert Gillespie, who also directed the original 2004 production, reviving it?
I was delighted. What’s intriguing about a play having a new production is that the characters that have been played by particular actors are now going to be played by different actors. The new actors will emphasise parts slightly differently. He’ll walk out of the room in a different way: I remember being struck when the actor playing Noël Coward at the end of a duologue with Agatha Christie just stood up and walked out of the room without saying goodbye. I said to the actor, “That was a very abrupt departure.” He said, “I’m following the way you leave rooms.” It was a revelation to me that I sometimes walk out without saying goodbye to people! Now the next actor’s not necessarily going to do that. He’ll find some entirely different way to come on and go off. Watching the way different actors do things, just as watching a different actor play (god help us) Hamlet or something like that is one of the fascinating parts of theatre.
Is it pleasing being surprised by an actor’s interpretation, especially if it’s a character you’ve written?
Yes, that’s the weird thing! It’s why it’s best for a playwright not to go to the early stages of rehearsal when actors are trying out the lines, because the actors keep fearing the author will intervene and tell them how to do it! They have to find their own way of doing it, fitting their own understanding of the character they’re creating. The last thing they want is the author fiddling about at that stage. So then when the writer comes in later it, you can be surprised by certain emphases, but they usually make sense if the actors are good.
Do you view your job as completed once the blueprint of the play is handed over to the director?
Sometimes in rehearsals, especially if it’s a new play, you can realise a point hasn’t been made adequately. Perhaps the actor himself can’t quite see why there’s been a change of mood. It’s maybe that an extra line is needed to deal with that. In that sense the author would have a role to play even late on in rehearsals. I know Tom Stoppard is always happy to add and cut things in a very genial way.
That would presumably require a good working relationship with the director? Do you have that with Robert Gillespie?
Yes! He did another play of mine, Oedipus At The Crossroads, which we hope to do again some time. It’s about Oedipus meeting his father where three roads cross. They find out one another’s identity – so how in that case will the myth be fulfilled? What will cause the death of the father? Robert directed it very well at the King’s Head Theatre and I was very pleased with it. He’s a very perceptive director in terms of understanding the implications of a speech that takes me by surprise. He’s noticed stuff I was presumably unconscious of. I’m interested to discover his ideas for the new production of Making Dickie Happy.
Was it through ‘Oedipus At The Crossroads’ that you became involved with Robert’s company Jane Nightwork Productions?
I’m not sure he called it that at the time, but it was through the Oedipus play that we worked together. I’d seen plays he’d directed before at the King’s Head, and I’m seen him as a very good actor scurrying about in Jacobean plays and that sort of thing. So I knew his work. I sent Oedipus to a producer, and he handed it to Robert, and I was very glad it went to him.
You mentioned ‘Oedipus At The Crossroads’ there, but are there any of your other works you’d hope to see revived?
I think only Oedipus and Making Dickie Happy I’d want to see again. There’s a play I wrote umpteen years ago about young people squatting [No Concern Of Mine] which is very much of its time. There was another one at the Vaudeville with Kenneth More in it [Signs Of The Times] but it was no good as a play.
Kenneth More was a great actor though.
It should have been good. I wrote it for a young man and woman, but the producer thought of Kenneth More – so then it was a middle-aged man and a young woman. The whole emphasis was changed as you can imagine.
As well as being a playwright you’ve been on the other side as a theatre critic for many years. How did that come about?
I began as a playwright. Then I came to know a man called Basil Boothroyd who worked for Punch. I’d had a play put on and a television play and I was chatting away to him about plays when suddenly he asked me if I’d like to be theatre critic of Punch, because they were looking for youth, and in those days I had youth. It had never occurred to me to be a theatre critic. I always thought they were the enemy, really – the other side! But I did it for ten years or so and then went to the Times where I’ve been ever since.
You must enjoy it?
Yes, I do. There comes a time when perhaps you’d rather not see The Taming Of The Shrew, say, but the opportunities to see plays by Chekhov or Tennessee Williams or new young playwrights is a real joy. I saw a rare play by Tennessee Williams, Vieux Carré, at the Charing Cross Theatre, which was a lovely opportunity to see a neglected work by a major playwright again. It’s great to see well-known works by poets of the theatre revived, but even the smaller ones, and even the ones that don’t quite work because they’re flawed in one way or another or they get into trouble near the end – they have snatches of poetry and ideas which catch the heart.
How would you compare theatre now to when you first became involved? Has there been a golden age?
My first job in the theatre was in the box office of the Criterion, sitting in the corner trying to make the books balance. In those days there was the Lord Chamberlain’s office and censorship. My own first play had to go to the Lord Chamberlain’s as it was before 1968 or whenever it was they did away with it. His readers described it as “a squalid little play”, I recall. But everything had to go in case there were references to sex, or the Royal Family, or god – all too stupid. But now writers like Mark Ravenhill can write anything – terrifying speeches of slaughter and blood-curdling behaviour, all riveting stuff. I’m reading plays by Steven Berkoff at the moment – real tough, in-your-face theatre. And of course fifty years ago there were no small or fringe theatres. The difficulty now is with schools not sending kids to see plays, whether it’s Shakespeare or anything else, it does tend to become too much of a middle-class event. Not so much as ballet or dance, I suppose, but still too much. I wish schools took more interest. When I was in grammar school in Surrey we were able to come up and see plays. There are more musicals than there ever were in London. So bringing it up to date what I enjoyed with Making Dickie Happy, as well as creating moments of drama and rage and anger on the stage, was being witty. I like an opportunity to do that!
How do you feel when you’re on the receiving end of theatre critics?
My colleagues who reviewed the original production of Making Dickie Happy at the Rosemary Branch fortunately liked it. One of them didn’t like it so much, but the others did. Speaking as a theatre critic it’s a dread one has to review a work by a colleague. It’s not an easy thing to do, but you have to grit your teeth and be courteously honest!
Do you go to press nights for your own shows?
No, I go beforehand to wish them all good luck and then go away and sit in a cafe, then reappear later. It’s a bit anguishing. I don’t mind seeing productions a bit later in the run, or even the day afterwards, but not on the first night – it’s a bit too itchy sometimes.
Which role has given you greater pleasure – playwright or theatre critic?
Oh, being a playwright!
We’re looking forward to seeing ‘Making Dickie Happy’. Thank you very much for speaking to us Jeremy Kingston.
Jeremy Kingston’s play ‘Making Dickie Happy’ will be running at the Tristan Bates Theatre near Covent Garden from 5th to 30th March 2013, to be directed by Robert Gillespie. Tickets are on sale from the Tristan Bates Theatre Box Office.