The theatre has always exercised a hold over me. One evening, in 1982, I went to the Half-Moon pub theatre in Islington to see a play that I heard was enjoying an enthusiastic audience response: Claire Luckham’s wrestling-ring marital allegory, Trafford Tanzi. I loved it instantly for its originality. It had a rough edge that made it simultaneously dramatic and entertaining. Howard Panter, the impresario, with whom I had earlier collaborated on Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, agreed we should join forces to bring the play to the Mermaid Theatre and ensure it an extended run.
Staging it at that venue meant a radical remodelling of the auditorium, but the Mermaid had been dark for months, leaving us a free hand to revamp it. We subjected it to much ripping out and rebuilding to form four ringsides and increase its seating capacity by a hundred to seven hundred and ten. A bar was also installed at the back of the auditorium to add to the wrestling-hall atmosphere. With licensing regulations overcome, the audience, clutching their glasses of bitter in authentic fashion, would be able to watch Noreen Kershaw as Tanzi hurling her stage family about in the ring. When the show opened in October, they also found themselves caught up in a degree of audience participation as the actors were liable, at unscripted and unscheduled moments, to come hurtling through the ropes, as happens during real-life wrestling matches. It was this sort of realism in the action, coupled with its feminist orientation, that brought the audience to its feet. The Evening Standard reported how their man, sitting in the front row, had enjoyed an even more direct experience of participation when one of the actresses, Victoria Hardcastle, appeared from nowhere in fishnet tights and clambered aboard his lap. Miss Hardcastle, whom he considered to be a most comely creature, predisposed him to a new appreciation of feminism. He concluded by describing how I was dressed for the occasion as a ‘wrestling promoter’.
Trafford Tanzi was playing to capacity houses in December when two members of the cast took exception to the promotion and sale in the foyer of three Quartet titles, namely Jean-Paul Goude’s Jungle Fever, featuring on its jacket the naked Grace Jones in a cage, Helmut Newton’s Sleepless Nights, a recent collection of photographs strong in erotic suggestion, and Janet Reger’s Chastity in Focus, a celebration of the exquisite lingerie she designed to make women more desirable. The objectors were Victoria Hardcastle and Eve Brand, who spent most of their time in the play in the ring, wrestling men into submission. Victoria rang me up and requested a meeting. In really quite a sweet-natured way, she suggested that the books on sale were unacceptable from her feminist perspective and she would rather I withdrew them from the theatre. It was her gentle persuasion that ultimately won the day, quite apart from the fact that I did not relish the prospect of having to settle the issue in the wrestling ring. When the press came on the line to ask for confirmation of the story, I simply said, ‘Since it was the women in Trafford Tanzi who objected, how could I be expected to fight?’
The production got a new lease of life in March 1983 when Toyah Wilcox took over the lead. She had to spend several weeks beforehand in training with a bruiser by the name of Howard Lester to cope with being pummelled, arm-locked, sat upon and thrown around in the ring. The following month it was scheduled to open on Broadway, with Debbie Harry, the lead singer from the pop group Blondie, reprising Toyah’s role. Debbie was being trained by Brian Maxine, who had been responsible for instructing the London cast in the ungentle art. With a deluge of unanimously favourable critical comment behind it, there was every reason to anticipate an equal triumph for Tanzi in America.
The Sunday Telegraph had called it ‘A rare show’, and the Daily Telegraph described it as the ‘most original, refreshing, surprising, exhilarating and fierce drama to reach London for years’. ‘Claire Luckham,’ wrote the Daily Express, ‘has not only written a musical, but a contest that had us going wild in the aisles for feminism’, while its competitor, the Daily Mail, called it a ‘play which brings new meaning to the term action-packed’. The Guardian reckoned that ‘It’s a message you don’t forget’, and the New York Times labelled it a ‘feminist play to end all feminist plays’. Cosmopolitan magazine thought it the ‘most innovative and entertaining show in London’, while Options went overboard by saying, ‘It is, quite simply, unique in the history of the British theatre. Glorious . . . liberating.’ The Tatler simply said, ‘The best night out in London.’
With the critics unanimously on side with their superlatives and the public flocking to see the show, Quartet rushed into print with an illustrated large format paperback containing the history of the production and an unabridged script. It went on sale in the theatre and to the wider book trade. The success of Tanzi made it one of the highlights of my theatrical career. Through it I learnt a great deal about the theatre and what makes a production click with the public. It was also very timely, with feminism becoming such a burning issue.
Then the curtain went up on the Broadway production and I travelled to New York to attend the first night. There was a vast contrast with the London experience and it failed miserably in seducing either the critics or the public: as the saying goes, it closed as soon as it opened. Everyone had agreed at the time that Debbie Harry would make a most refreshing choice in the casting, but in fact she looked uncomfortable in the role. There seemed to be none of the rapport between performers and audience that was the key to its success in London; no sign of the zing and vitality that characterized the Mermaid production. Fortunately we had sold the American rights outright. Trafford Tanzi’s failure on Broadway did not involve us in any financial responsibility.