Ancestral Voices

Devised and directed by Hugh Massingberd
Somerset House
(2003)

In 1962 I purchased my first TV set for the princely sum of four pounds from the pavement outside a shop in Hampstead, not because I couldn't afford more but because I'd heard so many bad things about TV. So with my one-channel, four-pound box, I brightened up my early evenings by watching Compact, whose star at that time was a certain Moray Watson, whom I looked up to as something of a role model. Now, all these years later, it was the same actor who appeared in this production.

I love one-man shows, partly because I don't have to work out who the new character is when they enter. But Hugh Massingberd has set himself an almost impossible task: a play about a relatively obscure person. James Lees-Milne, diarist, biographer, novelist and National Trust administrator, was a complex man full of contradictions: he was snooty, High Church, civilised, eccentric, reverential, astute, worldly-wise, a rather old-fashioned Englishman sporting a bowtie and needlessly shocked by the change of government when Mr Major was dethroned.

The location for this performance on 19th June 2003 was the Royal Society of Literature's Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, four flights up at Somerset House in The Strand. We, the audience, were a mixed variety of characters from all walks of life, including lecturers, writers, playwrights, poets, novelists, producers, biographers, historians, artists, potters, students, actors, lovers of literature, even an odd composer. The sparse but effective set reminded me of the first Stephen Joseph Theatre at the Scarborough Public Library in the 1960s. The first act is set at Brooks's Club Library during the Second World War, the second in the library of a Georgian house in Bath many years later. Both acts are extremely well shaped and end with great effect.

Despite the many illustrious personalities mentioned, there is no sense of name dropping, and the play moves at a good pace with numerous well-chosen fragments from diaries and other writings. The music chosen was excellent, and the much-used Elgar Enigma Variations were aptly appropriate for two reasons: our subject was obviously an Enigma himself, and Elgar provided a period flavour, as did the inevitable Coward songs which Mr Watson sang along to. A Schubert Impromptu for piano was used effectively to create a change of mood, there were expert sound and lighting effects such as wartime bombing, and the staging was highly professional. With the same actor this show would be an excellent choice for a Broadway production; it would also work well on Radio Four, Radio Three and the World Service. It would please a discerning audience.

Moray Watson, who has acted with such luminaries as Ralph Richardson, Anna Massey, Harry Andrews, Margaret Rutherford and Penelope Keith, will celebrate his 75th birthday on 25 June 2003. He is one of our most consummate actors, still handsome in a rugged, Peter Grimes-ish way, with impeccable stage technique, and sympathetic to his subject. Both he and Lees-Milne were old Etonions, and both had the distinction of army training. After studying at Webber Douglas, Watson launched on a long and successful career in the theatre. He appeared in an earlier one-man show as Sir Max Beerbohm, and played the part of Colonel Pickering in Pygmalion at the Albery; other plays include The Doctor's Dilemma, The Rivals, The Chiltern Hundreds and Hay Fever. On TV, besides Compact, he appeared in The Pallisers, Camille, The Borderers, Pride and Prejudice, Rumpole, Rookery Nook, On Approval, Churchill - The Wilderness Years, and The Darling Buds Of May. He appeared on Broadway in The Public Eye. His many films include Operation Crossbow, The Grass is Greener and The Sea Wolves.

Moray Watson's inner dynamo quickly took on its own momentum in this gripping performance, and he achieved a real tour de force in what amounted to a ninety-minute monologue. The memory feat alone would have been too much for many other actors. He brings to this near-impossible role skill, wit, humanity and rich emotion; at the end he seemed genuinely humbled by the audience's warmth and enjoyment. And what better test can any actor have than speaking on the telephone with such obvious verisimilitude? There can be few actors alive who could have carried the whole thing off with such conviction.

Reviewer: Richard Stoker