Never Had It So Good

(Role: Lennie Breeds)

Coventry /Feb. 29.

When a writer takes it into his head to launch a devastating attack on certain aspects of a group or an institution his enterprise is seldom greeted with more than a surly pretence of, "being able to take a joke against oneself as well as the next man."

Enthusiastic collaboration is the last thing one would expect, and therefore it is initially something of a surprise to find that on the programme of Mr. John Wiles's Never Had It So Good, which received its premiére at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, last night, "the help and cooperation of many organizations and individuals within the city" are enthusiastically acknowledged and that the set has been designed Coventry's City Architect, Mr. Arthur Ling. For the play had been announced as an attack on the present state of Coventry, giving an anything but flattering picture of life in a booming industrial city, and yet not only had collaboration been forthcoming from all sorts of official and semi-official organizations but last night a houseful of Coventry dwellers applauded the play to the echo.

One reason, no doubt, is that it presents the sort of criticism that comfortably-situated middle class people like to hear, waxing angry at the soullessness of a working class confronted with new prosperity beyond their wildest dreams, but even if it does not carry its criticism far enough to disturb its audience, at least it does criticize things which give many fair-minded people pause, and does so with some liveliness and humour.

The play is built on two dualities. One, the physical, is evident as one comes into the theatre - on the left of the stage is the towering scaffolding of the new Coventry, on the right the mouldering, half demolished remains of the old. The other, more psychological, is that between the two principal groups in the cast - the Gnobe and Briggs families.

The Briggses* are the happy barbarians who have never had it so good - plenty of money because father is working nights, and not a thought in their heads - while the Gnobes are victims of the bomb - derelicts from London in search of a no-good father and in danger of losing what ideals and worthwhile values they have left in the glow of Coventry's lights, ("ideals frying," says Mr. Skin, the philosophical bystander.)

Should the two dualities be aligned - new buildings and no ideas, slum houses and humanity?

Production photograph showing the stage set

So Mr. Wiles sometimes seems to suggest - "high wages and better working conditions: that's what they come for. But what do they do for happiness?" - but apparently not, for the author does see hope in a readiness to rebel, to build the future, putting something of oneself into it instead of just passively taking what is offered. And in arguing out his position he rises at times to a fantasticated eloquence somewhere between Under Milk Wood and The Dog Beneath the Skin.

Other assets are a large and well-chosen cast, Mr. Ling's evocative set, and the direction of Mr. Bryan Bailey and Mr. Richard Martin, which keeps things moving along briskly and neatly underlines the local jokes.

* Breeds family - in both reviews the critic stated 'Briggs' family.

From our Special Correspondent.

Coventry, Feb. 29.

Printed in The Times, 1.3.60.

Never Had It So Good

From productions associated with Theatre Workshop one has come to expect, at least, a generous sympathy with the working class, its splendours and miseries, and so the latest production at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, Never Had It So Good, comes as something of a surprise - and not, all things considered, a very pleasant one.

This play by Mr. John Wiles was first staged at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, last week, and concerns the life of workers and drifters about to move from the slums of the old Coventry to the towering flats of the new. Exactly in what light Mr. Wiles intended to show his characters is difficult to divine. One suspects that they were meant to represent humanity at large losing its individuality and ideals in the empty, inhuman mechanism of life in a new city. But in his eagerness to get in as many jabs as possible at the objectionable aspects of city life he has deprived his characters of the one positive virtue they had - their surging, unlimited humanity - by reducing them to puppets mouthing slogans. Consequently the playwright's attack appears to be directed not at his characters' situation, but at the characters themselves.

In the Stratford presentation the production's detail has been sharpened, and the symbolic value of Mr. Arthur Ling's splendid set diminished on the smaller stage. Miss Eileen Beldon as the struggling immigrant from London comes nearest to creating a believable and sympathetic character with some thoroughly unlikely dialogue, and among the younger people Mr. Brian Tipping and Mr. Alan Howard are excellent as young men going wrong. But they are all working against heavy odds which prove too much for other capable performers in the cast.

The Times, 9.3.60.

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