The applications almost swamped the ballot boxes. The queue for standing places formed from early morning. The rehearsals were alive with laughter and applause - the cast getting as much fun from the occasion as everyone else. There was nothing quite like the Last Night of the London season.
The last night of the first repertory season at the Savoy Theatre in 1907 consisted of no fewer that two first acts, two second acts, the second act scene from "The Mikado" between Ko-Ko and Katisha -- and an interval of 75 minutes. Not surprisingly, this performance started at 4 pm.
The tradition of mystery about the contents of the programme continued. In 1968, "Trial by Jury" was performed before the interval, followed by the second act of "Patience". Innovation and incongruity developed apace from then on. In 1979, for example, Kenneth Sandford offered a highly convincing impression of John Travolta singing "A magnet hung in a hardware shop."
At Last Night 1980, the surprises came thick and spectacular. Following the overture to "Princess Ida", the chorus of fairies from "lolanthe" sang in long white bloomers. John Ayldon,Meston Reid and Robert Crowe were hilariously co-opted to dance in the fairy band. Patricia Leonard made a magnificent appearance as Carol Channing. So did her hat. Lorraine Daniels looked and sounded splendidly like Cockney model girl Lorraine Chase - well, perhaps it's natural for one Lorraine to play another. But would you have expected Patricia Leonard to appear as Shirley Temple? She certainly did. And did it again in the encore.
Peter Lyon sang the duet from "Iolanthe" with Barbara Lilley dressed as Yum Yum. Peter sang in the costume of Captain Corcoran - and in intermittent bouts of total darkness as the spotlights misbehaved.
James Conroy-Ward sang that verbally most inventive patter song - "My name is John Wellington Wells". This was extravagantly and enthusiastically encored, as it had been in performances of "The Sorcerer" the previous week.
The chorus of peers were transformed for their march into American marines, with strong overtones of Sousa and Glenn Miller in an arrangement that featured Michael Penny swinging on saxophone.
Shortly after this, the first act ended and Fraser Goulding had to go and lie down for a while.
As the Entr'acte, David Mackie conducted Charles Godfrey's selection from "The Rose of Persia".
The scene then switched to "The Gondoliers". Fraser Goulding had recovered, but perhaps as a tribute to the plumbing system backstage, the Gondoliers sang with flu. Barbara Lilley and Lorraine Daniels arrived as the Gondoliers' wives. They were carrying airline bags and were also in plaster, so they were excused from dancing the normal cachucha. Instead, the Company did the villagers' dance from "The Sorcerer". As if by magic, Kenneth Sandford then did his impression of Dame Edna Everidge in a full-length purple dress and with a full-strength Australian accent.
James Conroy-Ward appeared as a busker to sing Tit-willow. Backstage members of the production, including both Wigs Mistress Heather Perkin and the Property Master Bob Lever, walked on, dropping money into his case. He then peeled off his shabby clothes to reveal a smart city suit, put on his bowler hat and exited showing a large Barclays Bank nameplate on his case.
Evette Davis sang the Rose Maybud song "If somebody there chanced to be" from "Ruddigore", in the sultriest of Left Bank costumes with the aid of a chair and a musical arrangement that would have done credit to the Folies Bergeres. Loud and prolonged was her applause for a sensational performance.
John Ayldon and Patricia Leonard had to contend with a truly wandering spotlight for their duet "Welcome joy, adieu to sadness" from "The Sorcerer".
The Company then showed us what they had been doing Down Under, launching into a most spirited selection of such Maori numbers as "Braid the raven hair". Peter Hamburger provided a tremendous percussion backing to this final section, with the help of Lesley Drury's rhythmic bass guitar.
In this section, the brilliant choreography of Alan Spencer was most enjoyably apparent. And almost all had to contend with the possibility of James Conroy-Ward cutting their grass skirts with his shears.
A glittering occasion. And let us not forget the people behind the scenes who did so much to make it happen. Alan Spencer was the master showman. He worked closely with Paul Seeley who wrote the musical arrangements, and with the additional teamwork of Fraser Goulding and David Mackie they came up with a wealth of funny and entertaining ideas. Writing out the special band parts necessitated much burning of the midnight oil and Jo Aistrop, who helped in this task, even worked, Sullivan-style, right through the night. Richard Braebrook provided some superb special costumes, and his efforts were supplemented by no little amount of personal ingenuity from the cast.
The final credit must go to the last night audience itself. There can be few gatherings anywhere in the world that are so knowledgeable, so quickly responsive and so tolerant of outrageous liberties with the words, the music, the settings and the costumes they love.
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