Des Henly's Rock and Roll Circus

Des Henly's blog

Des Henly
Des Henly's Blog about life and times on the road with Fumble in the late 60s and 70s

DES HENLY “ON THE ROAD” – ELVIS THE MUSICAL (part 2)

Touring with Fumble for the best part of ten years had its drawbacks, a mad succession of gigs, hotel rooms and cities across three continents. Appearing in “Elvis” the West End musical at the Astoria Theatre in London every night for nineteen months was a welcome relief, but if you read my blog last week you will know this award winning show was not without it’s incidents – here are a couple more !

Tim Whitnall, Shakey Stevens and P.J. Proby all portrayed Elvis at different stages of his life but only P.J., (a native of Texas with the right accent) had a speaking as well a singing part. Shakey’s broad Welsh accent was anything but the “King’s” Mississippi drawl, and this had ruled him out of any on-stage dialogue. Two understudies covered all these three roles, but rarely got on stage. However on one occasion both Shakey & P.J. were delayed by traffic after doing some promotional interviews for the show, so both understudies, Billy Hartman (who now plays the character “Terry Woods” in Emmerdale) and Shaun Simon had to start the show. When Shakey and P.J. arrived, the understudies had to exit at the end of their current scene. Next up was Shakey Stevens performing Elvis’ classic “Blue Suede Shoes”, but with only seconds to go before the opening lines, he still wasn’t on stage! “The show must go on…” so, in best show biz tradition, I grabbed the mic… “Well it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go cat go…” At that moment Shakey made a grand entrance as Elvis at the back of the stage and waved his arms aloft instructing the band to “cut the music”, which they did. In the silence that followed, still in this dramatic pose with arms aloft he proclaimed to the whole theatre and on-stage company, in the broadest of Welsh accents, “Hawd it ! hawd it ! I’m yer !!”. The audience just couldn’t associate “The King” with this uncharacteristic shrill Welsh outburst, and started laughing. We of course had to stifle our mirth at this graphic reminder of why Shakey wasn’t allowed a speaking role in the show.

In the previous ten minutes the audience had seen 5 different Elvis’ (including my opening lines of Blue Suede Shoes cut short by Shakey), and had seen “Elvis” make a grand entrance only to stop the show in an accent that owed far more to Newport than New Orleans. They were understandably bemused and many were reaching for their programmes to see exactly how much of the last ten minutes was in the script…. answer – none of it!!!

One of the most emotion packed parts of the show was when Elvis learned of his beloved mother’s death. This culminated with P.J. giving a heart rending version of “Mama Liked The Roses” whilst images of his mother Gladys filled the giant screens behind.

‘Mama Liked The Roses’ was a moody song, a very sad part of the show. Fumble didn’t play in this song, but we were straight in on the next number so we remained on stage in suitable repose. Heads bowed, hands clasped in front of us showing dignity and respect for the passing of Gladys Presley. The back projection filled the screens behind us with hundreds of red roses, through which, Elvis’ mum would slowly fade into view on the centre screen. Shakey slowly made his exit stage left, clutching the telegram bearing the tragic news. The strings played a slow atmospheric intro, P.J. made his entrance from the back, solemnly descending the two tiers to centre stage to raise his bowed head and sing, “….Mama liked the roses, she’d grow them in the yard, but winter always came too soon, and made the growing hard. Mama liked the…..” - at this point a terrible thing happened, an ascending human scream, with some words in it, in a language I couldn’t understand came from the depths of the stage beneath our feet. Everyone on-stage jolted at the same time whilst of course the show carried on. Eyes grew larger, and questioning looks shot discreetly across the stage unanswered. Then another terrible scream, followed by “….Awyuuuus! Awyuuuus! Awyuuuus!.....” rose from the depths. Whilst eerily distant and muffled, it was clearly audible to our 2,000 sell-out audience, especially as it occurred in one of the quietest moments of the whole two hour show. The on-stage cast, whilst totally perplexed, not wishing to convey their concern to the audience, carried on as if nothing had happened. The audience first reacted as one, with a kind of bemused collective “twitch”, before trying to understand the significance of what they had just heard. Some whispered in their partner’s ears, many thumbed through their programmes once again, their faces furrowed with confusion. What was the significance of this muffled howl ????

- Elvis being tormented by demons at his great loss?

- Gladys, finding another winter attempting to grow roses in that bloody snow, had sent her completely barking?

One elderly lady clutched at her chest, and gripped the knee of her partner, causing him to shoot forward quite dramatically. Most just looked at each other. I remember one little boy, sat in the front row, who had been sprawled in his seat, happily swinging his legs, playing drums on the arm rests with his hands, and singing along to bits from the show. But now he suddenly curled up into a foetal position and grasped his father’s bicep anticipating the action unfolding before him was about to take a sinister and frightening turn.

The moment passed, the pace and verve of the show swept the audience along, helping them to forget within seconds that there had been a part of the production they hadn’t quite understood.

In most real theatres there is a large space below the stage, and within this area a lot goes on. Electricians, back stage staff, store men, dressers all inhabit this part of the theatre at some point or another. In the case of the Astoria Theatre in Charing Cross Road one of its many uses was as a rest room, tea drinking, television watching kind of place.

The chance to watch some television was welcome, particularly if you were one of the understudies who spent each night waiting for the call that seldom came. This was never more true than in the summer of 1978 when the World Cup Finals were being staged in Argentina. The afore-mentioned understudy, Billy Hartman, a proud Scot, and avid football fan was, on this particular night, watching Scotland play Brazil on the television beneath the stage. When Scotland went ahead 1-0, he couldn’t restrain his emotions, and vented his passion with uncontrolled screams of joy! THIS was what the Saturday night audience had heard. (I have since discovered that the direct Scottish-English translation of “….Awyuuuus! Awyuuuus! Awyuuuus!.....” is in fact “..Oh Yes! Oh Yes! Oh Yes!....)

The show’s directors conducted an urgent investigation to unearth the cause of this intrusion to their finely tuned musical. It was a short investigation! Billy was quickly identified as the culprit, reprimanded in no uncertain terms, and learned a big lesson in backstage behaviour in a West End theatre. Namely, understudies should remain as such, and not take part in the performance unless invited!!! That night Scotland may have scored against the greatest team in the world, but at the Astoria Theatre, Barry had definitely scored an own goal!!

As drummer Barry Pike and I strolled to our flat in St. Martins Lane that evening, we were still laughing and imagining the thoughts and conversations going on in the pubs, clubs, and restaurants of theatre-land that night. ….… What was the significance of that eerie muffled scream……?? We thought of pretentious music critics debating and searching for the deep symbolism and artistic meaning behind Gladys Presley’s farewell being accompanied by Billy’s raucous World Cup celebrations.

For those music critics, and any reader, who was there that night – now you know!!! Thanks Elvis – for all the memories. Des Henly.