Waiting for Waiting for Godot

The Irish are fond of referring to comic banter as the craic or crack. Director Mark Bell wrote in the programme for Waiting for Waiting for Godot that it was ‘a very very funny script’, so one might expect the parody of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play, written by Dave Hanson, to be a bit of a crack and on that front at least, it didn’t disappoint.

Unfortunately the crack was in fact Simon Day’s ill-covered posterior, causing many in the audience to avert their gaze as his Calvin Klein branded underwear failed to grip on the numerous occasions that he was required to bend over. This, combined with his attempts to fasten a waistcoat that could clearly have been buttoned-up but for the purposes of the play was too small, told us all we needed to about the quality of the production.

Waiting for Waiting for GodotThe play is part parody, part pantomime, set in the dressing room of an unknown theatre where on stage somewhere there are two actors performing Waiting for Godot, while off stage two understudies wait for the Director to give them their big break. At one point I was certain that they couldn’t be real understudies because they were clearly hopeless and what sort of production could afford to employ two inexperienced understudies? However, that theory was blown with the appearance of the ‘ASM’ (assistant stage manager) who confirmed the validity of their presence. (Although I didn’t understand why, if she came into the dressing room to look for the smaller waistcoat that Day had mistakenly taken, why she left without it?)

Simon Day and James Marlowe played the understudies but neither actor seemed comfortable or confident with their own performance, they were both rushing their lines, Day had to try several times to remember his, and sat in the audience you quickly felt that neither person was enjoying their role. Day was portraying a well spoken, slightly pompous old-school actor who perhaps enjoyed fleeting success in amateur dramatics but has obviously not been taken seriously by the profession. Likewise the younger Marlowe is full of the ambition of youth spurred on by his aunt, who we learn, dutifully attends every performance in the hope that her nephew will one day be given the opportunity he deserves. Why exactly would a theatre company employ these two, even as understudies?

The Studio Theatre at the St James was two thirds full on the first Saturday matinee but laughs were few and far between. Mark Bell writes in the programme ‘It works as a human drama, a clown show and a sly dig at those actors who take themselves seriously but not their work.’ I think to work as a human drama we have to care about the characters we are watching and I didn’t. Maybe it was the performance but there wasn’t really anything human about them, yes they were clowns but that’s why it felt like pantomime.

Waiting for Waiting for GodotDay’s character came across as someone who didn’t have the first idea about acting, far from taking himself too seriously he seemed petrified at the idea of going on the stage. Such characters described by Bell would surely relish the opportunity of being in front of the audience and their own ego would carry them through, however badly they performed. The anxious portrayal given by Day had none of that self confidence. Marlowe’s portrayal was very similar to Day’s; well spoken, anxious, hopeful but lacking in experience. The younger character had no respect for the older actor and so the two performances moved along in the same gear.

Unlike Waiting for Godot there was a conclusion. The dutiful aunt died in the audience while waiting for her nephew to take to the stage and that provided the opportunity both men had been waiting for; although we also learned that the audience was leaving out of respect for the deceased and so it’s possible that they were going off to perform in front of the dead aunt.

It may get better after a few more performances but I can’t see this production getting the same response that has received previously in America and Canada.

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W. H. Chippendale – ‘Old Chippendale’

William Henry Chippendale was born in Somers Town, London, in August 1801, and was born to play old men. Even as a young actor he was affectionately known as ‘Old Chippendale’ because of his talent for playing older characters.

He was born into an acting family and was brought up in Edinburgh where he father was working. At the age of nine, William himself was on the stage, playing the Page to Stephen Kemble’s Falstaff, which led to numerous children’s parts being offered.

His mother had died giving birth and his father presumably understood the precarious nature of a career on the stage, which led him to guide his son into a more stable trade. Once his formal schooling had finished, William duly started working with James Ballantyne to learn about the printing business and it is said that the young apprentice delivered the proofs of Waverley to Sir Walter Scott. For reasons unknown, William then joined the offices of John Ballantyne, a publisher and literary auctioneer before ending up working as a clerk for a company that went out of business.

W.H. Chippendale was now 18 years old and unemployed; the only option open to him was the stage and he made his first professional appearance in 1819 in The Rivals. Thus began career that spanned nearly seven decades.

Kean as Richard III
Kean as Richard III

From 1820 to 1836 he worked in the provinces touring around the country winning over audiences and refining his unique style. In 1831 he was in London and played the Lord Mayor in Richard III at the The Royal Victoria theatre (now the Old Vic), as a substitute for his father. Edmund Kean was Richard III and Chippendale somehow came to possess the sword that Kean wore when playing the part. Perhaps it was his standing-in for his father that resulted in Kean giving him the sword?

At the age of 33 year he acquired his reputation for playing old men when he played the part of Sir Peter Teazle in the 18th century comedy, The School for Scandal.

In 1836 he received an offer to go to America, which was too good an opportunity to pass-up. Chippendale performed at the Park Theatre, New York, for the next seventeen years, enjoying fame, money and adulation. Among his most popular roles were Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Polonius in Hamlet, Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, and Pickwick.

Chippendale came back to the UK in 1853 and made his return to the London stage at the Haymarket as Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals (the play that kicked-off his professional career in 1819).

W. H. Chippendale
W. H. Chippendale

At the Haymarket he took the lead in courtly comedy, playing Sullen in George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem (1856), Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1856), Adam in As You Like It, and Old Dornton in Thomas Holcroft’s The Road to Ruin (1859). He made a great hit in 1861 as Abel Murcott in Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin. In January 1869 he was the first Dorrison in T. W. Robertson’s Home, and in October of that year the first Marmaduke Vavasour in Taylor’s New Men and Old Acres.

It was during his time at the Haymarket that his reputation for playing comedic older gentlemen overshadowed any other parts he was capable of playing.

Whilst Chippendale was widely reported to be a great comedian he was admired by his peers for his many portrayals as Polonius in Hamlet and he had played other roles to the Hamlets of William Charles Macready and Barry Sullivan, as well seeing Edmund Kean in the part.

In 1864 Henry Irving was a little-known actor organising his own ‘Benefit’ night in Manchester and had chosen to play Hamlet. Knowing that his performance would be compared to others, gesture for gesture, line for line, expression for expression, Irving apparently travelled overnight to Birmingham to seek out Chippendale who had a vast knowledge of how the part ought to be played. Irving wanted to know exactly how Kean had played each line and the elder actor was happy to oblige him giving an impromptu masterclass.

Irving never forgot the man’s generosity and the two remained firm friends. When Irving first played Richard III, Chippendale gifted Kean’s sword to his friend to wear as Kean had. In September 1878, just as Irving had taken over the management of the Lyceum Theatre, he asked Chippendale to play Polonius to his Hamlet. It was also as Polonius that Chippendale took his farewell benefit at the Lyceum the following year.

W. H. Chippendale had led a full life, married three times and had 23 children, although most predeceased him.

By 1886 there were reports of Chippendale being confined to an asylum and suffering from dementia. He died in London on 3rd January 1888, at the age of 87, and is buried at Highgate cemetery.

He was survived by his third wife Jane, also an actor, and there were hopes that she would set about writing his memoirs and committing his stories to print but alas she only survived him by five months and died unexpectedly in May of the same year.

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