Written by Michael Rudman
Directed by Mike Ockrent
Ian McKellen in the role of Terry
Hampstead Theatre, London, NW1
11 March 1983
Words from Ian McKellen
SHORT LIST seemed a sensible play to do, as there was no need for a longer commitment than three weeks rehearsal, eight previews and a 3½ week run after the notices. That left me with a decent break to prepare for COWARDICE rehearsals in May or whenever. Sean [Mathias] thought the play very funny, wise even. I rather, was attracted by working with Rudman and Ockrent, neither of whom I knew, and the possibility of getting a good cast (although Simon Callow had to say no) – and, of course, a new play at Hampstead was a nice quiet return to London theatre. All in all it fitted with my intention to be seen to be available for a wider variety of work than I’d done for the RSC and particularly might link me with a concern for new writing – soon to be confirmed by COWARDICE.
Nothing went wrong. The cast of SHORT LIST is spectacularly fitting. There is some woeful inability to feed a laugh-line from some of the cast, but Bernard Hill – although he’s missed half the fun of impersonating a recognizable type of successful producer – is a joy to work with. I like the dressing room atmosphere of caring bonhomie, which it would be nice to exploit by immediately doing another play. Particularly Maxine Audley and the two kids. Rudman is a complex complex of neuroses hiding a self-confidence that too often is displayed by the sort of bitchery he so accurately satirises in the play. He jokes about being Ockrent’s assistant director, and his convoluted notes in praise of the actors, Ockrent, and himself almost need an interpreter.
Terry (Originally ‘Tony’) is a smashing bit of camp and I think I’ve brought it off. I’ve had no difficulty in scaling the performance – audacious as the character is – to the size of the theatre. My filming as late has helped my stage-acting, as I always knew it would. But the theatre is a bugger – the stage being as wide as the auditorium means, with eight people on a brightly lit set, that comic focus is a constant problem and it’s also hard to get the small audience to respond together with that full-throated laughter that we’d get with exactly the same timing in a larger house.
Obviously the play doesn’t work. Should we be more Jonsonian in staging and in characterization? So that these people, not caricatures, could be marveled at as exaggerated types, monsters to be feared and mocked., so that the play’s lack of plot development would be less worrying. I’m bothered when critics, however silly, say they are bored. Also that some say the characters are not pleasant and therefore not to be endured. The people are, in their dialogue, quite life-like. I’ve dropped imitating Tony Richardson and I’ve succeeded in making Terry likeable by playing on his obvious fatherly affection for the family group. Three weeks rehearsal was too little. – Ian McKellen, 1983