Book review: Putting It On

Published October 22, 2010

Putting It On – The West End Theatre of Michael Codron 
By Michael Codron and Alan Strachan  (Duckworth, 383p.p. £25)

Still going strong at 80, producer Michael Codron has been a major player in London theatre since the mid 1950s and was given a special award at this year’s Laurence Olivier Awards in recognition of his continuing contribution to the West End, as well as his extraordinary track record for spotting, staging and nurturing modern British playwrights.

Alan Strachan, who has also written a biography of actor Michael Redgrave, is a director whose working relationship with Codron has given him unrivalled access to his archives and helped shape the producer’s description of his life and career.

The result is a book that informs on several levels, but most of all as an account of working with modern British playwrights; Codron has produced Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Christopher Hampton, Simon Gray, Julian Mitchell, Ronald Harwood, David Storey, Michael Frayn, Alan Ayckbourn, Caryl Churchill, Alan Bennett and Harold Pinter, to name just a few.

Although Putting It On isn’t meant to be a direct guide of how to produce a play – unlike James Seabright’s So You Want To Be A Theatre Producer (Nick Hern books) – anyone reading it will get a real sense of the ups and downs of a producer’s life as they follow Codron’s career from theatre-loving Oxford undergraduate to assistant of ex-bandleader and impresario Jack Hylton, through to his current position as doyen of West End theatre producers.

In the process the book does more than rattle off the famous performers (Maggie Smith, Kenneth Williams, Ian McKellen) and Theatreland figures (legendary agent Peggy Ramsay) that Codron has worked with. It recalls the radical changes that swept through the West End in the wake of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956, the year of Codron’s first solo production, Ring For Catty. It describes the explosion of theatrical talent that broke through social and sexual barriers in the 1960s (he produced both The Killing Of Sister George and Loot, for example) and shows how even a high-brow producer (Pinter’s The Caretaker) also needs an eye for a populist money-maker like There’s A Girl In My Soup.

As Codron points out, much of his earlier work was seen on the fringe – or at least off-West End – so it is not just the usual Shaftesbury Avenue playhouses but the Lyric Hammersmith and the little but punchy Arts theatre, along with the Hampstead, the Mermaid, the Royal Court and others, that feature in his account of a life lived if not on stage, then through it.

This recognition of the importance of smaller theatres as places of experiment (and affordability) for young impresarios is one of many comments on the nature of producing that make this autobiography as much a masterclass as a walk down memory lane.

PI