Tip Top Condition

In late 1973 Hilary Westlake and I were commissioned to supply in-foyer diversions for a Henry Cow concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre, then a major rock venue. A few days later we used elements from the foyer in a show called ‘Tip Top Condition’ – Lumiere & Son’s first theatrical production – at the Rotterdam Science Fiction Festival in ’74. I wrote about its genesis in our Tenth Anniversary brochure, produced in 1983:
“The directors were excited by the success of their first project (the Rainbow event) and decided to seek funds to pay the wages of a small company of actors. A luminary of the rock and roll world who had schooled with David Gale was approached (actually, he went to a nearby school – Ed.), and after a frank and uncomplicated discussion £1,500 was generously donated to the cause of experimental theatre with no strings attached. We also applied to the Arts Council Drama Panel and were surprised to be promptly awarded £750 (in those days you could take a woman out for a fine dinner, hail a cab to the railway station and weigh yourselves and still have change from a pound – Ed.)

Whilst discussing the implications of our good fortune a few days later, we received a phone call from Rotterdam. The director of the De Lantaren Theatre was organising a Science Fiction Festival and had heard about our barely formed theatre company from a Time Out theatre writer (John Ashford CBE, now Director of The Place Theatre – Ed.) Were we doing anything concerned with Science Fiction or Space at the moment? Within seconds an important lie was told and a verbal contract for a week’s work in eight days time had been agreed. The directors now had the rest of the afternoon to cast actors for Lumiere & Son’s first European tour. By supper time the best of the actors from the Rainbow had been persuaded to sell their services for £15 a week gross. (see ‘fine dinner’ reference above – Ed.)

After supper the directors found stark terror to be a most effective lubricant of the imagination and devised a quantity of exercises for a workshop to be held the next day in the lounge of David Gale’s house. Over the next three days Hilary Westlake encouraged the group to evolve a selection of stylised body movements based on the deliberate exaggeration of the members’ own most visible mannerisms. Our intention was to present ourselves as a group of aliens who were anxious to pass themselves off as Earth-people by imitating Earthly behaviour. The audience would perceive that the aliens were getting their imitations badly wrong, which would provoke mirth within a Science Fiction context.”

Disingenuous as it may seem publicly to profess an interest in one’s own artistic development, I have to interrupt this 24 year old account of a 34 year old show in order to note the writer’s (my) enduring preoccupation with social transactions as performance rather than unprepared reciprocation. Not a novel stance, to be sure, but one that kicked off in the 70s as an expression of personal experience and has gradually, it seems to me, come to serve as an analysis applicable to a broad section of contemporary social life. The steady osmosis of theatrical values into that life has absorbed me greatly. The comic impersonations of ‘TipTop Condition’, in that respect, are not so very far from the complications of identity evident in my last show, ‘Vanity Play’ (2007).

But that’s enough about me – let’s see what you think of this extract from my show business memoir…

“Our Dutch host had asked us to perform vignette-like events in various corners of his theatre buidling, so we prepared a vocabulary of activities from which we would select items appropriate to each futuristic cranny. During rehearsal a number of decisions were made on costume. We wished to avoid what we felt were the banalities of fictional space-wear, and therefore designed costumes based on found and altered second-hand clothing that was clearly contemporary yet had an eccentric and awkward quality that did not stray into the dubious area of the ‘wacky’.”

The ‘look’ of early Lumiere & Son shows was strongly influenced by the presence among its actors of a recent graduate from Leeds Art College called Rose English. Rose was six feet tall and had a highly distinctive dress sense supported by her regular and forensic inspections of jumble sales and junk shops. Her personal style was reflected in the drawings, designs, found objects and garments she produced for the company and for the first few years our costumes, props and programmes all bore her elegant and thoroughly idiosyncratic mark. Our interest in a ‘contemporary timeless’ visual quality was not merely complemented but considerably extended by Rose’s unique take on performance. In later years Rose English, of course, went on (and continues) to produce a remarkable succession of increasingly large scale works, some of which featured horses, dogs and children.

“We were surprised on arriving in the foyer of De Lantaren to see Lumiere & Son billed to perform their play at 8.30pm the following evening. We had no play in our possession at that time, and a ripple of panic lightly disguised as weak giggling ran through the band of international travellers grouped around the notice board. After supper Hilary took all the separate components of our ‘event’ and joined them together into a ‘play’. The next morning this play was rehearsed for a few hours and was found to be 40 minutes long. Surely this was unpardonably short? Our Dutch host passed through the auditorium, nodding approvingly at our dedication and apologised for failing to mention earlier that our show could not be longer than 40 minutes. We thanked him and said this was perfectly in order.

That evening the play ‘Tip Top Condition’ opened to the space connoissuers of Rotterdam and was warmly received. Our host was delighted because we were one of the few groups whose work had a genuine Sci Fi theme – it seemed that a number of less scrupulous organisations had merely brought along their current show and recostumed it in silver lurex tights!” (What do you have to say about that, Natural Theatre of Bath? –Ed.)

A major physical element of the hastily composed show was a large white and orange silk parachute, equipped with shoulder straps and worn as a long, billowing dress by Hilary. When the hem of the parachute was grasped around its perimeter by the cast of six we discovered that it could be raised above our heads and brought firmly down to the floor as we ducked under. The silk would fill with air, creating a giant striped hemisphere beneath which we placed lights that made the costume glow, revealing our own shadows beneath it. Hilary’s hair was bound around a foot-long stick to make a vertical tuft, her face was whitened and her arms were decorated with giraffe markings, a make-up technique patented within the company and featuring the application of Sellotape in five sided shapes to the bare skin of the performer.

It took about twenty minutes to giraffe the naked body of an alien visitor: after the tape had been applied, dark brown make-up was sponged on. When it had dried, the tape was peeled off, to the accompaniment of shouting. The performers then donned their costumes over their new mottling and, when on stage, sweated profusely in an intensely physical show. Somehow the make-up stayed intact. The climax of the performance found the aliens creeping out from beneath the mother chute, having cast off their earthling outifts, their giraffing apparent to all.

“‘Tip Top Condition’ further consolidated areas of style and content that we felt were central to an emerging notion of what ‘our theatre’ was about. The use of disciplined exaggeration, the development of a ‘Lumiere & Son look’, and an atmospheric use of lighting were further additions to a repertoire of devices which we were becoming confident of using well.

Back in London we savoured our continental success and resolved to make further offers to our actors in order that we might start putting together our first full-length play. The verbal content of ‘Tip Top’ had totalled some eight lines and the directors felt that the next production should expand in the writing department and also involve a fuller use of set and properties than our hand-luggage oriented sci-fi entertainment.”

‘Tip Top Condition’ was one of the few shows that Lumiere & Son kept in repertoire. Its structure was modular: the aliens demonstrate their grasp of greeting, eating, washing, sex, fighting and other basics, interspersed with long periods of ‘line work’ in which they rock to and fro and from side to side in line abreast unison, impelled by piercing shrieks and cries from the parachuted giantess. It was possible to train up new performers in a day and have them out front shortly thereafter. I loved performing in the show – its prerequisites of a maniacal fixed grin, much hair cream and eruptive clowning more or less reflected the palette of my own ‘acting’ skills and kept me extremely fit. Modesty does not quite prevent me from disclosing that I believe I was the first in the cast to perfect the ‘accidentally placing the shoed foot in the plastic bowl of soapy water then affecting to fall over backwards thereby propelling the water into the front rows of the audience’ gag.