Not all the productions I have been involved with as one of the leading lights in the Natural Theatre Company have been resounding successes.
Many years ago we were commissioned by London’s Oval Theatre to devise an evening show to celebrate International Women’s Week.
The Oval was a theatre that leant towards experimentation and agit-prop in-yer-face productions.
Our show was experimental alright: we were still devising it on the way up from Bath in the van. There was one bit where I bravely agreed to the stage direction ‘Enter Ralph. He speaks for six minutes.’ I’ll make something up I gaily declared, and the rest of the cast nodded in full confidence that I could do so, as on many previous occasions, with great aplomb.
On opening night, the show was six minutes shorter than planned! I walked out onto the extended apron stage with the audience banked on each side. I went completely blank, carried on walking the length of the stage and went straight out the swing doors at the end and onto the busy street outside.
The critics weren’t entirely unkind. One simply said ‘It’s not often you see Ralph Oswick lost for words.’
One section of the show that did work was a scene that involved about half a dozen window frames, complete with multiple glass panes, borrowed from Walcot Reclamation back in Bath. These were suspended on wires above the stage and various archetypal women peered from behind, as if trapped. Each delivered an appropriate short speech and then they all took off one of their high heeled shoes and proceeded to use them to tap ever more rhythmically on the window panes.
Once they got going, of course some of them got a bit carried away. The guys at Walcot Rec were none too pleased to get their windows back with half the glass missing.
A much more successful part of this residency was an improvised piece that Naturals stalwart Brian Popay and I did in the theatre’s café. There was a scandal at the time involving a cleaner who had discovered confidential grant applications abandoned in the toilet at the Arts Council’s swish HQ on Piccadilly.
Using a whole line of toilet bowls (once again borrowed from the treasure house of potential props that was the Walcot Rec yard) we recreated the Arts Council bogs. Brian and I played a couple of arts officers who’d come in to do their business. Of course, one of us found there was no paper and so the other tore off sheets from his folder of applications and passed them under the imagined partition.
Seeing us reading off bits of peer group applications, dismissing them out of hand and then using them for alternative purposes had the diners in stitches.
Of course, the sketch ended with the officers finding the Natural Theatre’s application and, instead of flushing it away, deciding to award them an enormous grant. Which in fact that year, folks, they did!