Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Growing old disgracefully

By GREG DIXON

She sits surrounded by mementoes of a lesser pedigree on the mantelpiece of his writing room. From her position, behind the writer's left shoulder when he sits at his computer chasing words and willing drama, she casts her bronzed gaze towards him like some happy muse.

She is more - or less, he'd claim - than that. She stands as a small, handsome testament to a singular accomplishment for our best-known and most successful playwright.

The statuette was handed to Roger Hall by the late great Sir John Gielgud at a flash awards do in London more than 20 years ago. The occasion was Hall's second successful play, Middle Age Spread, being honoured as Comedy of the Year in the West End.

That joy was over in a hot minute. A round of applause followed the announcement. Hall gave a brief, now half-remembered, thank-you speech. But the trophy is more than a keepsake of a moment when a play became an awarding-winning play. She stands as a mantelpiece reminder to the English-born New Zealander of his first and only work - though there have been near misses since - to make the journey from the stages of his adopted home to the cherished boards of London's West End.

"Having it play on the West End was a lifetime's ambition fulfilled," Hall says, smiling and seated on the deck of his Ponsonby villa.

"It was a wonderful era for me. So I have enormous affection for Middle Age Spread."

And so, it seems, have we. It is 26 years since the play was first presented in Wellington, 25 since it became a film and 24 since that bronzed beauty entered his life. And yet this work is spreading again throughout the nation's theatres.

Productions in Wellington, Christchurch and Palmerston North have begun, or will soon. An Auckland Theatre Company revival opens at Sky City Theatre this Saturday, featuring Geraldine Brophy, Greg Johnson, Robyn Malcolm, Stuart Devenie, Catherine Wilkin and Roy Snow. It is directed by Colin McColl.

That Middle Age Spread might endure to be revived, and that it might become a funny, pathos-soaked piece of social history as much as a play, never occurred to its author.

"My rules are: does it interest me, does it amuse me, does it make me laugh? So the first person you're trying to entertain is yourself and then you've the practical thing of, will it work on stage?" says Hall.

"But I wasn't very confident about it at the first read-through, and there was a silence at the end. But then someone said you know, it's actually better than Glide Time, which was nice to hear. With Glide Time I felt deep down it probably would work. With Middle Age Spread I had no idea. But it did work."

The idea for the play, essentially a comedy of bad manners at a dinner party filled with rants, revelations and recriminations, had been with Hall for some time before he decided it was worth pursuing.

"I'd written Glide Time and I didn't want to stop, and this idea had been floating around: six people at a dinner party that they didn't want to be at.

"In the 70s, people gave a lot of dinner parties. And I'd shown New Zealanders at work with Glide Time and this was sort of showing the middle-aged, middle classes at home - which was so familiar for the sort of people who went to theatre then. And now, with the revivals, people are saying, my God, we're still worrying about the same things."

Middle Age Spread speaks still for the middle classes. It talks of their boredom with themselves, their partners, careers and their families - and about being stuck with it all.

In his introduction to the play's published edition, Professor Ian Gordon suggests it's a work about not being able to escape, even when we try, from who we are.

After the success in 1976 of Glide Time, Hall had set himself a more complex task with Middle Age Spread.

"It was very difficult to write because of its structure, though I remember the pleasure of thinking of the last line. I set myself the big problem of having guests eating dinner, and that's terrible to do on stage because it's hard for actors to deliver lines when they've got a mouthful of food. It also reminds the audience that they're feeling a bit peckish themselves and they get distracted. And it's a bit tedious.

"So I had to interrupt the dinner party. I hit on this device of flashback scenes which I didn't tell the audience were flashbacks, so they had to work it out. There was that pleasure, too."

Yet the difficult concept saw Hall abandon the play for a time. It was only after he was made Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 1977, and could write fulltime, that he delivered it.

"In the end, it's well-structured, I have to say. But it was a real challenge."

A challenge, Hall soon thought, worthy of its own piece of theatre. He went on to write, shortly after, State Of the Play - a play about playwriting.

"What I also learnt was getting one play on in the West End doesn't mean another will follow. I learnt that all the planets have to be in alignment."

The main result of the long labouring on Spread was that it became an instant hit, which has since had more than 100 productions. It was also, for a few anyway, considered racy because of its nudity.

"I had one complaint from a woman that the man wasn't nude and the woman was, she felt robbed. But most people didn't think anything of it."

Another woman was deeply offended by the sound of a toilet flushing in the opening scene, he says, hooting.

The film of the play, made in 1978 for the unbelievably paltry sum of $150,000, was also well received. However, he remembers a Herald film critic writing how awful Elizabeth, a sort of mumsy, home-proud housewife, was as a character. "It was a sort of feminist rant. It just killed it dead up here. You weren't allowed to portray women like that."

When the play made it to the West End the following year, with the wonderful Richard Briers and Paul Eddington as leads, it again put bums on seats. The esteemed theatre critic for the Guardian, Michael Billington, was less sure, however, writing: "Mr Hall writes like a fretful liberal."

Put the accusation to Hall now, and he shrugs. "It might have been true of me at the time. I can live with that, fretful liberal."

What he seems uncomfortable about is any suggestion that, though he's written more than 20, mostly successful, plays since, Middle Age Spread was his peak.

"It was my Olympic gold medal. It was an achievement to get it on in the West End and to win was an achievement. So it is in that sense. I've had huge satisfaction since. I don't think my career's plummeted," he pauses, frowns, then continues. "Occasionally people say, 'Oh well, you haven't had another one on [the West End].' Well, it was a miracle I got one on actually and that it did well. It used to upset me [that none of my other plays were picked up in the West End] and it would be nice, but I've had a fantastic writing life."

She who stands on the mantelpiece watching Roger Hall write would surely agree.

Performance:

* What: Middle Age Spread

* Where: Sky City Theatre

* When: previews tonight and Friday; then May 17-June 7

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