Writer Carrie Dunn reveals the history of the shocking and controversial productions that were presented in the Roundhouse.
‘Tasteful pornography for the thinking voyeur’ – an incredible description of a groundbreaking show staged at the Roundhouse.
Kenneth Tynan’s revue Oh! Calcutta! landed in Chalk Farm after a spell on Broadway, featuring songs and sketches by Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepherd and John Lennon, and ran for four sold-out weeks before transferring to the West End where it would run until 1980.
So far, so cultural, so ordinary – but this was one of the most shocking and controversial productions in the history of British theatre.
What appalled some observers – and what enticed others? It was the show’s use of extensive total nudity – both male and female.
Those with a colloquial knowledge of French might have noticed the linguistic pun in the title – it was derived from the expression ‘O quel cul t’as!’, or more prosaically ‘What an arse you have!’
Moral guardians balked; critics piled in; and audiences delighted in the fizzingly bohemian atmosphere.
“It had an exciting feeling about it,” recalls Arlene Phillips, who performed in the show as a dancer. “The audience were wild and quite avant garde – and dressed up in their wild clothes just to enter the building. They were part of something that was happening.”
Oh! Calcutta! opened at the Roundhouse in July 1970, less than two years after the Theatres Act was passed, abolishing censorship on the stage. Up until that point, any new script had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for approval – but the increasingly liberal attitudes of 1960s British society forced a change in theatre.
That made it a perfect time for Tynan’s show to transfer from New York to London – and the Roundhouse, with its established reputation for experimental theatre, was the perfect venue. In the previous decade it had included on its bill acts such as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Steven Berkoff’s Metamorphosis, Tony Richardson’s Hamlet, Sex Pistols, Fleetwood Mac and The Doors. Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s The Living Theatre – one of the world’s most radical groups – had already staged Paradise Now in 1969, with its daring use of nudity blazing a trail for Kenneth Tynan.
Plenty still harked back to the principles of the days gone by, though – many of them without even seeing the show. Literary historian John Sutherland reports that there was outrage that the Arts Council-funded Roundhouse should stage such a show, referring to it as “state handouts for filth”. Some even hoped that there would be prosecutions – of Tynan or of the venue – and expressed their sadness that freedom of expression was now permitted. Phillips remembers fighting her way through crowds of protesters outside the Roundhouse just to get to work.
“People were shouting, ‘It’s obscene, the show shouldn’t be allowed, it’s disgusting,’” she says. “It was incredible – absolutely incredible.”
Beyond the protests and the lurid reports, though, was a show with exquisite heart.
“Much that is seen in it strikes me as beautiful,” confessed Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times.
After Oh! Calcutta!’s successful transfer into the West End, the Roundhouse’s theatrical experimentation continued. In 1971, another Broadway creation arrived – Andy Warhol’s Pork, a play based on the recorded conversations between the auteur himself and his associate and fellow artist ‘Superstar’ Brigid Berlin. The venue also became the home of the new genre of rock musical theatre, hosting Godspell, Rock Carmen and the original production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The Roundhouse has shocked, surprised, outraged and overwhelmed audiences for half a century with its thrilling, radical, unique programming – it truly is a theatre like no other.