Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

Philadelphia Diary, 1996

Day Five: Wednesday, July 24

David Turner

In the morning, Neil Smith hosted a "coffee and conversation" with David Turner, who, when he is not adjudicating the G&S Festival, is better known as artistic director of The Mousetrap, at 44 years the world's longest-running play. He readily conceded that The Mousetrap is a fluke-not a bad play by any means, but not one that even the author, Agatha Christie, considered among her best. Interestingly, the play's original director had a contract that guaranteed him a percentage of the gross "for the run of the show." That lucky man still receives a check of some £700 per week for some three weeks' work forty-four years ago.

Turner is not optimistic about the future of live theater. In London's West End, as on Broadway, ridiculous union rules artificially inflate the cost of bringing shows to market. For example, The Mousetrap is required to employ three full-time stage-hands, even though the play's scenery has not moved in twenty-four years (the last time the set was redesigned). Similarly, the theater must employ three full-time electricians, even though the show has only seventeen lighting cues. While these rules pose no economic problem for a long-running play like The Mousetrap, they pose significant entry barriers for new productions.

Amateur theater, he says, has lost much of the fun of the old days. Many towns have five or six operatic and dramatic societies, which dilutes the quality of productions beyond all reason. Performers, he feels, are no longer loyal to the long-term success of their own society, but instead bounce around from group to group. (I do not share Mr. Turner's pessimism; performing, like sex, is a natural human instinct. The theatrical arts may evolve, but our love for the stage will never die.)

Adjudication occupies only a very small amount of his time. Understandably, he supports the institution, but he recognizes its inherent dangers. He endeavors to be honest, but he feels he is never ruthless, and he never makes a joke at a performer's expense. It's a hazard of the profession that, despite his best efforts, some comments will hit harder than he intended, but he works as hard as he can to avoid this.

Americans continue to find adjudication shocking when they first encounter it, but I queried several of my friends at week's end, and most favored its return at future festivals. No one agrees with everything Mr. Turner says, but he is thoughtful and well-informed, and in this festival, I think he achieved the adjudicator's ideal of being "honest, yet not ruthless." While I do not doubt that some performers were displeased by his comments, I know of none that were reduced to tears by unintentional cruelties (which happened at least twice at the 1994 festival). I would suggest to him, however, to curb the occasional impulse to "pick nits." Comments that distract from the broad theme of his remarks are, perhaps, better reserved for his written report.

I would be very surprised if Mr. Turner stays with the festival for any more than another year or two. He has not adjudicated any other festival more than four times, and the G&S Festival takes more of his time each year. When the time does come, it will be most interesting to see if the Smiths can find anyone as good. As Ian Smith is no doubt aware, there is no more sensitive job in the festival.

The Sorcerer, Original D'Oyly Carte Stars

Wednesday night was one of those magical nights in the theater that we all live for. Unlike Sunday's Ruddigore, which even the participants privately acknowledged fell a bit short, The Sorcerer was a happy romp that clicked on all cylinders. Most agreed it was the best Sorcerer they'd ever seen, and a few said it exceeded the original D'Oyly Carte's Sorcerers. The principals included everyone from Ruddigore, with one substitution (Alistair Donkin, not Simon Butteriss, as the patter baritone) and one addition (Peggy Ann Jones as Mrs. Partlet).

The Sorcerer is a great chorus show, and director Roberta Morrell had her charges actively engaged in the action. Unlike the Ruddigore dance at the end of Act I, Sorcerer's Country Dance lived up to its billing. Every chorister was a unique character. Several were dressed as members of a marching band and mimed accompaniment to the major Act I march numbers. To all who would ask how to use a G&S chorus, one needn't have looked any further for the answer.

Geoff Shovelton (Alexis) and Julia Goss (Aline) were a far more congenial pairing than Goss and Butteriss in Ruddigore, and Goss had a far better feel for the character. She shone especially in the dialogue preceding the Act II quintet, with each of her lines delivered like a dart to the petulant Alexis. The voice, it must be acknowledged, is no longer of the calibre we expect from a professional singer. Meanwhile, Geoff Shovelton goes on and on; each performance is a new singing and acting lesson. Pity that their love duet in the Act I finale was punctuated by an alarm that was set off by left-over smoke from the incantation scene.

Peggy Ann Jones is an asthma sufferer, and in fact she suffered such a severe attack after her Sunday master class that she was hospitalized until Wednesday afternoon-just a few hours before the curtain rose on The Sorcerer. I am told that during her twelve-year reign as principal soubrette (1962-74), she was one of the audience favorites on tour, and in her timeless rendering of Mrs. Partlet, we saw why. Ms. Jones is one of those performers who, like Monty Python's John Cleese, is able to draw humor from every inflection of every line-both her own and those of others. Whether she was rolling her eyes, dropping her jaw, waving an arm, or trotting across the stage, she made every moment tell. Often a throwaway part, in Peggy Ann Jones's hands Mrs. Partlet was the evening's greatest highlight.


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