Robert Robinson

Years active in NCP

1976 – 1977

Robert Robinson

The first statement about the Nairobi City Players that must be emphatically made is that it was a thoroughly professional theatre company. Just because its members were not paid for their services, and they had daytime occupations, did not mean that the standards of performance and production were any less than that of a comparable UK repertory theatre.

I found that out at my very first rehearsal of ‘Hostile Witness’ which required a large cast of English ‘types’.  The play had run successfully at London’s Drury Lane Theatre a few years prior to 1976 when I was invited out to Nairobi to direct it. The London cast featured a number of familiar West End character actors. One can say with a smile that NCP was not short of ‘characters’.  One essential skill that itinerant guest directors like me must have is to be able to work immediately with actors one has never met or auditioned. You are presented with the cast as well as the production designs and that’s more or less it. NCP was very fortunate to have Bryan Epsom as its Artistic Director. Energetic, diplomatic, very knowledgeable, and shrewd, he was able to hold all the different components together. There were times in my subsequent jobs that I found myself thinking how much better this place would be if Bryan was running it.

So I was delighted to be invited back the following year to direct two back-to-back productions. The first was particularly intriguing – an all African cast in “The Desperate Hours”, an American play in which Paul Newman made his 1955 Broadway debut. The play is set in Indianapolis but I adapted it to Nairobi. I soon learned that the African community, as in the Middle East, are accustomed to an all-inclusive story-telling tradition, rather than a captive, regulated, silent audience situation. Our cast was mostly university students – very smart, sophisticated, and busy. The organization of rehearsals was a nightmare, but they pulled it off very successfully. One had to admire Bryan Epsom’s foresight. Diversity in the entertainment world has become a hot topic since the Nineties, especially in the States where I now live. NCP was doing it in the Seventies.

The second play was “The Man in the Glass Booth”, a serious and rather fraught story of a New York Jewish millionaire who is agonized by the continuing effects the repercussive emotions engendered by the Holocaust have on Israel and its Diaspora. As a way of achieving some kind of closure, he assumes the identity of Adolf Eichman, allows himself to be found, captured, put on trial, and hanged as was the real Eichman. Certainly not your usual fare for a Rep company; to the best of my knowledge it has not been done on the UK Rep circuit. It attracted great interest among Nairobi’s small but vibrant Jewish community, many of whom were not familiar with NCP. In fact one lady came on board to help with Hebrew and Yiddish pronunciation. We obtained a huge Israeli flag for the courtroom set from the Israeli Embassy, whose ambassador attended the opening night, as well as others from the diplomatic corps

The NCP contract stipulated that the guest director remain on site for the two -week run of the production, during which time NCP would send the director to various tourist destinations. In other words, a guaranteed holiday. Once again, NCP was way ahead of the curve; such things are still contentious issues in labour union contracts. Of course, Nairobi itself is a fascinating and wildly diverse metropolis, and I enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of all the NCP members. I am happy to say I still remain in touch with Brenda Goodman and Mary Epsom. Lake Naivasha, safaris on the ground and in the hills, a week on the Island of Lamu, a flight around Kilimanjaro to Moshi with a flying doctor, climbing Mt. Kenya with a wonderful guide, Francis Karuri. Outstanding events in my life all due to Nairobi City Players. Not only did they entertain – they inspired.