Book Review: The Best of The West End: The Life and Work of Frith Banbury by Charles Duff

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Theatre and theatre writing has changed a great deal since 1995 when Charles Duff’s biography of Frith Banbury and his work in the 1950s and 1960s was first published under the title of The Lost Summer. It seems strange then, that publishers Zuleika have chosen to reissue the book in paperback under a new titled The Best of the West End: The Life and Work of Frith Banbury with some minor factual edits and a five-page author’s addendum written in 2021 in which Duff himself acknowledges some of the things that are now wrong with the book you’ve just read.

Few would argue against Duff’s central thesis that Banbury was an influential actor, director and producer who created a more modern notion of theatre directing and became a leading figure in the promotion of new writers. Duff’s insight into the changing landscape of 1950s London and the shifting balance between the commercial West End and subsidised theatre, as well as the changing style of realism and class distinction offered by the rise of the Royal Curt are also absorbing.

Admitting to having received and been ‘enraged’ by over ten pages of ‘corrections’ from Banbury himself shortly after publication, the line between Duff and his subject is a blurry and deeply emotive one throughout the book. In this new addendum, Duff takes great pains to prove that he was right, although it is unclear what such refutation is doing here. In fact, Duff appears to have taken the whole exercise quite personally, even quoting from the few critics that disliked the book when it was originally published, a curious thing for a writer to still be worried about more than 25 years on.

Later, Duff summarises areas in which his analysis was right or wrong, going on particularly to discuss the reassessment and restoration of Terence Rattigan following the centenary of his birth that led to a flurry of fine productions including After the Dance (National Theatre, 2010), Cause Célèbre (Old Vic, 2011), Flare Path (Theatre Royal Haymarket, 2011), The Browning Version (Harold Pinter, 2012) and an extraordinary and memorable performance from Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea (National Theatre, 2016) recently shared again via NT at Home. But it seems strange to include these issues as an afterword and not just rewrite those sections of the text to reflect the updated circumstances – why republish something you know to be wrong/?

While it may have received good notices in 1995, the style of The Best of the West End now feels quite old-fashioned in its narrative approach, listing productions and their cast with relatively little analysis sown in. Here and there, Duff’s choice of words has not aged well, referring to director and designer Hedley Briggs as an ‘unreliable little man’ which is unnecessarily derogatory while later he diagnoses Rattigan’s Freddie in The Deep Blue Sea as having ‘mental dimness,’ an unfortunate phrase that misrepresents a character who is broken by war. Duff quotes the reason himself a few lines later as Hester explains ‘his life stopped in nineteen-forty’ – it is trauma not unintelligence that sits beneath Freddie’s lack of emotionalism, of which RAF veteran Rattigan himself knew all too well.

Decades have passed since The Best of the West End was first published and both the style of theatre studies writing and the reflections on the playwrights Duff prmotes have changed. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Duff’s original purpose on Banbury’s influence and the nature of 50s writing that he so wants to champion, so why not rewrite this book entirely and reinforce their continued importance another quarter of a century later?

Published by Zuleika Books and Publishing and available from 24 February 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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