To Sir, with love, from a star of the backstage

Let Me Set the Scene
August 26, 2005

Michael Hallifax certainly has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. His CV reads like a checklist of the defining moments of postwar British theatre. The Royal Court of 1956 and Look Back in Anger .

Tick. The early days of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon with Sir Peter Hall. Tick. The birth of the National Theatre with Sir Laurence Olivier. Tick. Hallifax's career delivered him again and again to the crucible in which modern British theatre was forged.

What makes his memoir so different from the usual offerings is that Hallifax was not a director, actor or writer, but a backstage administrator. He rose from stage manager to company manager to production manager. He literally ran the show - but from the wings. Such people are vital but overlooked cogs in the theatrical machine, which makes this book all the more welcome - I can think of no other memoir written from a similar perspective.

Let Me Set the Scene is an entertaining romp through 20 years of theatrical history, and Hallifax is a charming host. There is something gloriously old-fashioned about the book, from Hallifax's habit of referring to Olivier as "Sir" to his insistence on having no "spicy goings-on" in his pages.

Hallifax is polite and discreet about everyone and everything, letting his true feelings emerge with the subtlest of nods and winks. One of the joys of the book is reading between the lines to try to fathom what Hallifax really thinks of his distinguished cast. He only once drops his guard when he criticises Christopher Plummer. But even this is mild - Plummer is merely described as "not my favourite actor at Stratford" - but it says something about the book's tone that it stands out as a rather shocking indictment.

What we get is a lively, witty record of the productions and people who made the Royal Court, the RSC and the National great. Hallifax recalls a theatre now long gone where staff wore suits and call boys escorted actors from dressing room to stage. He describes the details of his job with precision, although sometimes this can become overbearing - I am not sure that anyone needs to know about the minutiae of keeping a theatre stocked with programmes. Far better is his story of packing a gas cooker into a taxi cab for the set of Look Back in Anger . Hallifax reveals himself as the man who literally put the kitchen sink into kitchen-sink drama.

The best and most evocative part of the book is about his time spent at the fledgling National Theatre, working in Nissen huts left over from the Second World War. At the heart of this chapter lies Hallifax's relationship with Olivier, the National Theatre's creator and first artistic director.

Hallifax, who obviously feels great respect and affection for the man, creates a vivid portrait of a committed and enthusiastic powerhouse. Their working relationship is fondly described, and Olivier emerges as kind and generous, although Hallifax remembers how he could never leave the offices until Olivier himself had gone home, which was often not until late. His memory of listening for the moment when the great man had left the building so that he too could flee is one that everyone who has worked in an office can relate to.

So there is much to enjoy about Hallifax's book, but what nags is his refusal to place what he experienced in any sociocultural context. Of course, there are plenty of books that cover such ground, and Hallifax never once claims that his book is a theatre history in any sense, but it is frustrating that someone who was present at a golden age of British theatre has nothing more perceptive to say about the era.

There is no sense that he was witnessing a theatrical revolution, and he describes the work staged by these three great companies enthusiastically but rather anodynely. One comment sums it up: Hallifax complains that some of the actors and directors at the Royal Court were too political for his liking, which somewhat misses the point. The Royal Court is important precisely because of its role in introducing politics to British theatre.

It appears that Hallifax, rather like Sir John Gielgud, has little interest in the world that turns outside the stage door. This does not stop this book from being a charming and entertaining memoir, but it does render it somewhat toothless.

Robin Dashwood is a television drama and documentary director at the BBC.

Let Me Set the Scene: Twenty Years at the Heart of British Theatre 1956 to 1976

Author - Michael Hallifax
Publisher - Smith and Kraus
Pages - 387
Price - $19.95
ISBN - 1 57525 330 5

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