Garry O’Connor’s newly published novel about theatre folk rehearsing an off-West End production is not quite what it seems.
Although the publication date of this pocket-sized volume is 2020, in his preface the author explains that it was written long ago, probably 50 years in the past, as it is set in 1969.
Indeed, The Terrorist has the feel of something written by a young man, sometimes too keen to make his mark and impress while giving a fly on the wall overview of theatre life soon after the Summer of Love and the end of stage censorship.
To add an extra frisson, O’Connor makes no apology for the fact that “some of those working in the theatre in those far-off days may well remember—or won’t have to go far to recognise—some of the originals on whom characters are based.” Contrarily, he then tempers this by saying that “no character in The Terrorist is intended to be that of any actual person, alive or dead.”
The minor problem for anyone interested in doing the detection is that in order to spot the famous models on whom the characters are based, any reader would need to be well into his or her 70s.
The writing has a tendency to be flowery, while the plotting can be dense and some of the subsidiary characters only fleshed out in a limited fashion.
Most of the action revolves around three men. Oliver Lindall is the rather priggish writer / director of When Winter Comes. Quite what the pretentious, seemingly mediocre play is about is never too clear but that isn’t the point.
The meat of Part One takes place at Oliver’s country retreat in Wales where he invites the whole cast to bond and begin rehearsals.
For the most part, they are experienced old lags who are more likely to resent than benefit from this kind of preparation.
That is certainly the case with leading man Simon Baird, a bombastic, pontificating drunk with violent tendencies. This power-hungry, bigoted Yorkshireman divides his time between intimidating the director and trying to run the show.
Their battles are witnessed from the sidelines by Fleet Street theatre critic William Edgar. He has been invited by the director to sit in on rehearsals as a means of getting a far deeper understanding of life on the other side of the curtain and initially embraces this with enthusiasm.
However, as battles between director and leading man get out of hand, Edgar’s involvement increases to an unimagined degree in the run-up to opening night.
As it should be, the undoubted highlight is the big night itself, which defies expectations both on and off the stage.
At times, The Terrorist can both shine a light on the London theatre scene half a century ago and also make readers laugh. However, the greatest pleasure will almost certainly be derived by those old enough to recognise the originals and thus fully appreciate the satire.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher