British Theatre Companies: 1965-1979.
John Bull (ed.)
Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2017
21.99 [pounds sterling], pb., 320 pp.
ISBN 9781408175439; ePub: 9781408175453
This timely and engaging collection is the first in a three-volume series which aims to tell the story of British theatre from 1965 to 2014 through its theatre companies. However, not all types of company are analysed, only "alternative" and "fringe" theatre companies (although these terms are no longer used with the confidence they once were). As the series editors John Bull and Graham Saunders state in their preface, "each volume charts the progress --and sometimes demise--of small--to medium-scale touring companies, who from the late 1960s took to the road in a fleet of transit vans and established a network of performance venues for themselves throughout the British Isles". The book has another necessarily self-limiting focus, in that it comes out of a major five-year, Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded research project into the archives of the Arts Council of Great Britain entitled "Giving Voice to the Nation: The Arts Council of Great Britain and the Development of Theatre and Performance in Britain 1945-1995" (ix). Alternative theatre, therefore, is seen primarily, though not exclusively, through its relationship to its principal source of funding, the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB). The book has another ambition: as the series editors argue, post-war British theatre history gives relatively little space to companies as such--much more to writers, practitioners and practices--and the series aims, therefore, to provide a "clear chronological and contextual account of the overall development of these groups ... (and) how funding policies and shifts in cultural agendas changed their evolution in the course of over forty years" (ix).
British Theatre Companies has a simple structure. Two contextual chapters (by Bull) chart effectively the cultural and political cross-currents of the period and explore different types of alternative companies, how they saw themselves and were seen by the ACGB (and others). The second, and lengthier, part of the book consists of case studies of some of key companies, each with a different author: CAST (Bill McDonnell); The People Show (Grant Peterson); Portable Theatre (Chris Megson); Pip Simmons Theatre Group (Kate Dorney); Welfare State International (Gillian Whiteley); and 7:84 Theatre Companies (David Pattie). These case studies are uniformly well-written and persuasively argued, and the collection covers a lot of ground, although some key developments, of black and Asian theatre and women's and feminist companies especially, are left for other volumes in the series to consider.
What does this focus on the relationship between alternative theatre and the ACGB offer? The material from the archive consists mostly of reports on shows and companies from ACGB officers, panel members, letters from company personnel, and media coverage. The many reports of shows quoted across the book constitute a record of performances, sometimes unscripted and often unpublished, that is virtually unparalleled. Reviewers were often extremely diligent, giving a very good sense of what it was like to "be there", providing a record of events, the originality and distinctiveness of which might only exist in the present tense of performance. The book is worth reading for this reason alone. However, this is almost exclusively an account of English alternative theatre (a consideration of 7:84 Scotland notwithstanding), as arts funding was devolved even before the formal establishment of separate Arts Councils in the nation-regions, and the archives are held separately.
One reason why the development of England's alternative theatre is brought so clearly into focus by the ACGB material is that state subsidy increased during most of the period covered, and alternative theatre companies were amongst its chief beneficiaries. Most of this theatre was aesthetically and politically challenging: and most of it received public subsidy at one time or another, even though the ACGB frequently struggled to make sense of what they were funding. In one sense, the ACGB was enacting a wider debate about what theatre is and what it is for, asking questions that had not often been asked in the Council's short history. Alternative theatre companies proved adept at making their cases, frequently couching requests (sometimes demands) for funding in terms of a nascent cultural democracy, in which theatre is deemed to be as necessary a part of the welfare state as the National Health Service. This was, in Gramscian terms, the "common sense" of the post-war consensus, taken to its logical end.
Alternative theatre was not a single phenomenon, still less a coherent "movement", despite the prevalence of a counter-cultural politics cast in the long shadow of the events of Spring 1968. This is clear from the case studies, all of which give proper attention to the distinctiveness of the companies being discussed, their specific histories, influences and ambitions. One of the pleasures of the book is noting just how much twenty-first century theatre practice echoes that of this earlier period, even when this is largely unacknowledged. Kate Dorney, for example, notes how current immersive theatre practice is eerily suggestive of the work of the Pip Simmons company, which is rarely credited in contemporary accounts. Elsewhere, it is possible to chart the development of a practice across time, from the direct simplicities of agit-prop to the complexities of a revived popular theatre in 7:84's work.
One of the book's ambitions, in which it is largely successful, is to write--or rather, partly re-write--a history of alternative theatre through its theatre companies, giving weight to the revolutionary politics and aesthetics of the time. It is no coincidence, of course, that the book ends in 1979 with the emergence of Thatcherism. A new "common sense", a new hegemony, was about to be born, in which the tenacious hold of alternative theatre on the public purse would loosen. In his account of the 7:84 companies, David Pattie observes that their fortunes ebbed and flowed with the prevailing political climate. The same might be said of all the companies discussed in the book. This suggests that the next volume in the series will be concerned with existential struggles of a different kind to the first. If it is as valuable and well-written as this volume, I look forward to reading it.