Saturday, 10 September 2016

WestEnders … St Martins Lane (1938)

The queue for tickets at Wyndham’s Theatre stretches right round from the box office down onto St Martins Court, a street scene barely changed in 78 years even if last minute ticket sales have now moved online. But even if you were lining up for tonight’s show of No Man’s Land you would be unlikely to encounter street entertainers like The Co-operators… a rag-tag troop of street musicians topped off by a “reciter” specialising in high-volume Kipling.

Busking has moved on and is now far more organised in a London trying to license its random charm and organise all ad hoc entertainments. One well-spoken character describes the practice as little more than begging… but it looks like hard work to me: trying to interest the ambient public in poetry on a theatre night?!

St Martins Court busking
One man shouts out The Green Eye of the Yellow God and J. Milton Hayes’ poem has never sounded so desperate… so lonely. He is the aptly-named Charles Staggers as played by co-producer, co-writer Charles Laughton. St Martins Lane (US title Sidewalks of London) was number two of three films Laughton made with Erich Pommer and it is naturally dominated by his extraordinary expression although not at the expense of his equally remarkable co-star, young Vivien Leigh. This was the film before the Big One in ’39 and, even without the benefit of hindsight and biography; you could see that her curious energies would carry her far.

This film is most certainly “not my period”, as I would always say in degree days… but there’s plenty of silent style on view to accompany two thoroughbred British theatricals (and Rex Harrison). I like the way they use actual street acts such as The Luna Boys (they sound and look very 1977) but they can’t avoid a magical realist feel even when a lengthy tracking shot from a bus shows the gang performing outside the Holborn Empire. It’s clever direction from Tim Wheelan – a passenger’s eye view – but it’s surely on an elaborate but artificial set?

The buskers from the bus... Holborn?
It matters not as the staging only focuses the viewer more on the febrile key performers both of whom I confess to being less familiar with than I should be. Now I get it though. Late as usual…

Charles Laughton was always one of my Dad’s favourites and he tells his story with truth and naturalistic force. His Charlie Staggers is a man on the cusp of middle age who still, just about, believes in his big chance… but it’s as convincing as his refusal to pass beyond 39 to 40 (we’ve all been there and in fact my father stuck on 39 for years as was his right).

Mr Laughton
He’s supported in his entertainment by the possibly-fallen-from-your-grace Gentry (Tyrone Guthrie) – as in “landed”? – one harmonica, a cheery guitarist called Arthur (Gus McNaughton) and a terrier who knows far more than a dog ought to know… As they busk in St Martins Court Charlie’s robbed of sixpence by a pretty urchin. He chases after his half-shilling only to find her making eyes at a handsome chap in evening clothes at a food stall. The gent is a song-writer name of Harley Prentiss (Rex Harrison) and the gal whose face he’s growing accustomed to is simply... Liberty (Miss Leigh).

Leigh, Laughton and Harrison
Libby’s a free soul who can sing and dance with abandon yet who survives through streetly-wiles incorporating common theft and trespass. She relieves Harley of his silver cigarette case but Charlie spots the sleight of hand and follows her to an empty grand town-house where she squats. Before he can pounce he witnesses her dancing in the moonlight – she moves with grace and stirs something in Staggers’ soul.

They argue, the Police arrive and they escape back to Charlie’s digs… So a great friendship is formed as Charlie reveals himself to be a total gent willing to offer Libby his bed whilst he sleeps on his chair.
All of the gang live in the house which is owned by Mr and Mrs Such (Edward Lexy and the wonderful Maire O'Neill who looks like a mix of my Nan and Lillian Gish). Cakes are baked and new routines are devised as Libby is added to the new troupe: The Co-operators.

Leigh and Laughton
Now, we all know A Star is Born but this story is both softer and richer than that. Libby grabs hold of Harley’s coat-tails when he comes calling after Charlie’s return of his case and naturally her talent shines through at the Holborn “audition” as she comes to the attention of the theatrical toffs.

Charlie crashes into drunken disrepute as Libby works her way up the billings… there’s massive back-stage action and set-pieces to rival Busby Berkley’s more moderate works as Libby’s wayward loyalties threaten to negate our goodwill. But things take a more enriching course…

Vivien smiles and glares
It’s a slight story perhaps but the work performed by Leigh and Laughton is exemplary. There’s an edginess to Vivien Leigh’s acting that makes you constantly unsure about her character – she runs from annoying to adorable with all stops in between whilst Laughton is her equal in unease, staggering (see what I did…) between self-delusion and realisation and treating both those imposters just the same. His final reading of If bringing tears to any sober man’s eyes: a melodrama in your face and well under control.

To top it off there’s the extraordinary sound of Larry Adler who for a harmonica player sounded a heck of a lot like an orchestra!

St Martins Lane is available on expensive US Blu-ray and reasonable UK DVD: hopefully it’ll get a re-release soon.
The Luna Boys!

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