The UK’s first LGBT theatre group, Homo Promos, is staging La Ronde, a salacious new musical by Peter Scott-Presland and David Harrod about life in a gay bar, at the Rosemary Branch Theatre from 15 March to 3 April. Co-director of Homo Promos, Peter Scott-Presland, talks to Tom Wicker and OffWestEnd.com about the show, x-rated films and his love for Sheila Hancock.
Tom Wicker: Could you start by telling our readers a bit about yourself?
Peter Scott-Presland: I must have writing in my blood – I wrote my first play for my Boy Scout troupe when I was 14. (It was a murder mystery involving poisoned lipstick.) When I went to university I did pretty much nothing else except perform, direct and write revues and cabaret. One of the revues, Here It Comes, my first show with David Harrod’s music, went to Edinburgh and was
nominated for ‘Best Musical of 1974’ by Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times. Since he was the only critic who had picked up on Waiting for Godot, his opinion was enough to get me going down the theatre road.
Gay Sweatshop, the first gay theatre troupe, had just formed, so I wrote them a play – which they turned down. So I thought, “Sod it, if you want something done, do it yourself.” I’ve always been impatient to put stuff on as soon as it’s written so I get frustrated when trying to work with larger mainstream organisations. I always get ground down by the process. You could write four plays in the time that it takes to get one put on at the National Theatre. What’s that awful word? “Development”? I don’t think Shakespeare ever had work “in development” and he didn’t suffer.
The other thing that went along with emerging as a writer was emerging as a gay activist and a specifically “gay” writer. I’ve always seen my work as relating to the gay community and being part of it. Plays are not just a dialogue between characters; they are a dialogue with the audience. In my case that’s all about what it means to be gay and what constitutes a good gay life. That doesn’t mean I only work with gay performers or only want gay audiences. But I do see writing about gay issues as my core strength. I hope it has crossover appeal, as so much gay work has done more recently.
“Writing about gay issues is my core strength”
The third strand to my career is my interest in lyric-writing and musicals. I’ve been working on that as long as I’ve been writing. I did my first original gay cabaret act in May 1973 at 4am in a very bad beige frock in front of 200 drunken rugby players. I’ve been entertaining the troops ever since – I’m the Vera Lynn of the gay movement. I write nearly all of my cabaret songs with David Harrod.
TW: What prompted you to found Homo Promos?
PSP: I’d run gay theatre companies since 1975-6, because I thought it was important for gay people to see themselves reflected by a group which identified as gay. In 1987, Gay Sweatshop was folding and with seemingly no permanent gay company left, I’d begun thinking about forming one. Then along came Section 28 – the Tory Right’s attempt to stop councils from “promoting homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Call me an opportunist, but the first time I heard of this new clause I thought, “What a great name for a theatre group!”
So I chose “Homo Promos” with the deliberate intention of sailing into the eye of the storm and being provocative. We were playing for council-funded organisations, in council premises, and I wanted to see how they would react. Only one venue refused to have us with this name, so we simply reinvented ourselves with a tiny handwritten “not” inserted above the logo. Twenty-three years on, Section 28 is history but we’re still going strong.
TW: What interested you about adapting the original La Ronde?
PSP: I came at La Ronde through the film versions. I saw the Roger Vadim interpretation because it was sold as naughty and French and I was at the age when even walking through the swing doors into an x-rated film gave you an erection. Then I saw the Max Ophuls version at the NFT, which was truly enchanting, mesmerising; it remains one of my favourite films. What I liked about it were the possibilities the structure opened up for looking at sexual relationships in all their variety: sex as power, sex as adventure, sex in love, sex for money, sex as a game and so on. And I particularly liked the Anton Walbrook character, the commentating ringmaster, who bound the movie together.
I saw the play later and, to be honest, I don’t think it’s a patch on the film. The characters are shallower and it’s very episodic. There’s a kind of fierce morality in the grinding repetition of the episodes, but that’s about all. So I wanted to adapt it because I thought I could make it better!
I got around the episodic nature of the original by having a barman as the linking ringmaster and two little gay bar flies as a mini-chorus of Cupids who hurry everyone into their sexual positions. Music binds the characters and the themes; and following the progress of the first character on stage, the Kid, who turns up again the last episode, gives the show a through line. I won’t give the last scene away, but it’s quite different from the rest.
TW: Why did you think it would work as a musical set in a gay bar?
PSP: The gay bar setting gave it a kind of unity. The show operates on an axis of bar and bed, which pretty much sums up life for some gay men! In London, there are so many bars that they can afford to specialise; so you can happily never meet anyone who isn’t like
you. But I wanted a situation where different kinds of gay people were forced into contact with each other. So it’s set in a smaller town – somewhere like Guildford! – where there’s only a gay population big enough to sustain one bar that everyone goes to.
“Music is the perfect way of persuading someone into bed with you”
Everyone wants sex but everyone also wants love. It’s the crosscurrent when one is confused with the other that’s interesting. It’s also a funny story, because the hypocrisies and dishonesties of people trying to get sex in and out of relationships are essentially comic. And music is the perfect way of expressing unspoken thoughts, of heightening emotion and of persuading someone into bed with you…
TW: What can audiences expect from the show?
PSP: Well, a helluva lot of great tunes for a start. The music has to be the starting point for any musical – it provides the flavour and atmosphere of the production. David Harrod is quite simply a genius when it comes to tunes. We’re only a few days into rehearsal and already the cast is arguing over which are the showstoppers. I reckon we’ve got about six drop-dead-gorgeous, take-home songs.
Beyond this, the audience will get eight snappy sexual encounters (five gay, two heterosexual and one lesbian) with varying degrees of seriousness. They range from quite farcical to satiric to emotionally involving. I think the audience will like all of the characters
and identify with a couple of them. Ultimately, I’ll be surprised if people aren’t moved and don’t shed the odd tear or two.
TW: What makes the Rosemary Branch Theatre a good venue?
PSP: The Rosie is my favourite venue in London. It was a great regret that we couldn’t take our last show, Desire, there because it involved a large orchestra. The key to the theatre’s success is the people who run it, Cec Darker and Cleo Sylvestre. Cleo’s a working actress and Cec is a former dancer and dance teacher. They have a passion for performance and they put so much of themselves into the place and into supporting the companies that come there. In many pub theatres the landlord is only interested in the rent – sod everything else. I won’t name names…
TW: What’s your opinion of Off West End theatre? What does it offer?
PSP: Off West End theatre is one of the glories of London and if it was marketed properly, as a unit, like the Edinburgh Festival, visitors would come to London just to see it. West End theatres do a great job of getting the tourists in but there’s a market for the fringe too, believe me. I had a straight couple from Israel book to our last show because they had come to London to see the smaller shows.
Of course, as a punter you need to be picky – particularly because of the vanity publishing element where anyone can get a play on by virtue of having a few thousand. But that’s where good, honest and speedy reviewing comes in.
“Fringe theatre will always beat the West End for shining a torch into the darker corners”
Leaving this aside, though, there is a diversity of work and a level of risk-taking that’s fascinating. Fringe theatre will always beat the West End for shining a torch into the darker corners, on the neglected plays, while fostering new talent. The writers of tomorrow are going to come up through the fringe now that the provincial repertory system is buggered.
TW: What has been the most inspiring production you’ve ever seen? Why?
PSP: That’s a difficult question. I saw Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret with Judi Dench three times and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock. I loved their ability to deal with deep issues with such panache and with such good tunes. I think those two shows exemplify what a musical can be.
I’d also put in a word for Minehead Revisited, performed by the Brixton Faeries in 1979 at the Oval House. It was just after the Jeremy Thorpe trial, where the former Liberal Party leader was tried at the Old Bailey for conspiracy to murder his maybe ex-lover Norman Scott. The case was a classic one of scandal, hypocrisy about gayness and establishment cover-up. The Faeries put on a piece of street theatre each day outside the court based on the transcript of the previous day. After it was all over, the whole thing was strung together as a cross between Macbeth and Sandy Wilson’s The Boyfriend. Wise, wicked and wonderful, with an unforgettable performance by Stephen Gee as a doll-like Thorpe.
TW:Are there any actors or actresses you’d like to direct?
PSP: I associate performers with parts I’d like to see them do. I have a play, A Pot of Tea for Two, which has an absolutely stonking part for an actress around 70 years old, of which there are far too few (parts, I mean, not actresses). The character is developing Alzheimer’s and spends most of the play trying to make a pot of tea. There’s strong physical comedy in it, of the blackest kind, as well as stuff about class as well. I would love Sheila Hancock to do it. I adore her and think she must also be a really funny, generous, kind person in real life, so I’d love to direct her in this one. But I think she’s said she’s not doing any more stage work, so that’s not likely to happen, unfortunately.
TW: What have been the best, worst and funniest moments of your career so far?
PSP: I think the worst, best and funniest moments came in the same show when I was in Edinburgh in 1977. I was running a gay venue, with six shows a day, and I was performing twice a day as well, with a third show to open in the middle of the second week. It was completely crazy. The rest of the company rebelled against having to rehearse the third show while performing two others and walked out, leaving only one other person on board.
Show no. 3 was called Sir Herbert Macrae – A Tribute. It was a kind of practical joke. Edinburgh always has these tribute shows to obscure Scottish worthies with names like Allan Muckie of the Muck, presented by men in dinner jackets and ladies in a lot of floral print. So I’d invented this character, Sir Herbert Macrae, given him a fictional life story and an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography and written off to dozens of celebrities to get their memories of this bogus figure. I ended up with contributions from the likes of Joyce Grenfell and Spike Milligan.
So when the original cast walked out, I had 72 hours to change the show from a play for six people to a two-hander, then rehearse it and perform a lunchtime show while running a theatre at the same time. Those were the worst three days of my life. But the great bit came when the show won a Fringe First – much to our surprise. And the funniest moment occurred when the head of the clan Macrae came to see it.
Many people who booked to see the play were convinced that Herbert Macrae was a real person, so you could hear the chuckles and snorts spread as the penny dropped at different points. Lord Macrae looked very stern and reverential at the start and I thought he was going to be deeply offended by this insult to his clan’s honour. But afterwards he sidled up to me and whispered, “I write dirty verse meself. Shhh!”
TW: Can you tell our readers about what you’re doing next?
PSP: Going to Edinburgh! I did a play last year called Strip Search, about a male stripper. His stripping character was called Squaddie and his back story was that he’d been a soldier with a really fraught and deprived life. The stripping in the show was a metaphor for the baring of his soul, with the “onstage” act mirroring his “offstage” story. The play got the best reviews I’ve ever had, and since it’s both controversial and really portable (the set consists of a chair, a towel and some baby oil) it’s perfect for the Fringe.
“The set consists of a chair, a towel and some baby oil”
Beyond this, I’m going back to writing for a bit. I’ve got a couple of ideas for musicals for the company. I’m also writing a social and political history of gay life in the 1970s and ‘80s, commissioned by The Campaign for Homosexual Equality.
First published by Offwestend.com