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A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!





Theatre Book Prize 2013


Palladium, London



2 May 2013


Last year at Drury Lane the rain teemed. This year over the Palladium, the sun shines. Both are august backdrops to the annual Theatre Prize Award, and now we’ve swapped the Grand Saloon for the Jack Parnell Suite.  Strain your ears and you might hear his orchestra, backbone to those Sunday night line ups all those years ago. Surely suite is a playful two-way homage? Snuck into its alcoves are the framed posters and photographs of its A-Listers: Gracie Fields, Danny Kaye and Bob Hope. And if they leapt from the frame no one would bat an eyelid.

Short-listed is the whimsically-titled Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly: the outrageous story of a one-legged, Georgian comedian with shades of Tristram Shandy, a biography of the polymath Jonathan Miller, In Two Minds, by The Independent’s theatre critic Kate Bassett, My Old Man: a personal history of Music Hall by ex-prime minister John Major, The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama, not quite the pocket compendium it sounds, edited by Thomas Betteridge and Greg Walker and Lena Ashwell: actress, patriot, pioneer, whom Ellen Terry described as ‘a passionate voice,’ by Margaret Leask.

The Theatre Book Prize is an occasion of snapshots. Adding gravitas were Fenella Fielding, whose voice is still like velvet Guinness, and last year’s long-lister, Edward Petherbridge for Slim chances, fresh from playing in My Perfect Mind.  Yet standing unassumingly at the end of the room are the long list tomes; sentinels all. There’s the Shakespeare stall with Sweet William by Michael Pennington from ‘20,000 hours with Shakespeare.’ There’s the Irish stall with works on Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh, Stewart Parker and Beckett. And there’s music hall, variety with a series of compendiums. The range is vast.

Judge Gavin Henderson picked out Chaplin’s Music Hall by Barry Anthony and My Old Man; the sons of music hall have ‘done good.’ Henderson also praised Mr Foote’s Other Leg with its sweep from murder, destitution and the debtor’s jail via Charles Macklin’s drama school, with fellow student David Garrick, to Royal Patent and the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

Fellow judge, Penelope Keith also picked out theatre’s infinite variety and the biography The Front Legs of the Cow by Susannah Corbett, of her father Harry H Corbett, featuring his time with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and Steptoe & Son. Yet she champions Margaret Leask’s Lena Ashwell, a woman ‘airbrushed out’ of history.

The final judge, Henry Hitchings, gave us Josephine Blatt, aka Minerva, who ate steak with three eggs and two salads every evening, and lifted 3,564 pounds from The Strongest Men on Earth, published by Robson Books. And the playwright Hannah Cowley, The Belle’s Strategem, 1780, a play enjoyed so much by Queen Charlotte that she decreed it should be performed once a season for the royal family. Hitchings’ ultimate praise is for Kate Bassett’s biography of Jonathan Miller, outlining Miller in brilliantine form as he describes a noted theatre critic as coming down on his work ‘like an ounce of bricks.’

Such doors, such possibilities - I want to read them all! Then I remember Penelope Keith’s opening words when book number fifty six dropped on the mat: ’I nearly lost the will to live’…..But there can only be one winner, announced by actor Timothy West, and it is the delightfully sounding Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly. Yet there they all stand in the mid-morning sunshine, enticingly close, surrounded by the elegance of J.P.’s suite. The books’ smallness off-set the weightiness of the framed photographs on the walls. Now there is dialogue: what words of wisdom could each impart to the other? And who will be next year’s champions?....


More about the Theatre Book Prize


My Old Man – A Personal History of Music Hall, John Major, Harper Press
Lena Ashwell - Actress, patriot, pioneer,  Margaret Leask, University of Hertfordshire Press
In Two Minds: A biography of Jonathan Miller, Kate Bassett, Oberon Books
The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama  Thomas Betteridge and Greg Walker (Eds), Oxford University Press
Mr. Foote's Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London. Ian Kelly, Picador