I came to Kenya in September 1973 to teach in a school some ten miles from Nairobi city centre at Langata. In order to meet people, those new to Kenya had to join in some activity or other. Many people took up sport, but I was more interested in theatre, though I didn’t know how to go about getting involved. One of my colleagues, Laurie Slade, introduced me to his brother, Nigel, who was setting up a new theatre project called ‘Jaribu’ and was looking for an assistant on his first production. I can’t remember exactly how it came about, but at the end of that production, I think Nigel told me that Nairobi City Players were looking for someone to operate a ‘box lime’ on their new production of ‘Godspell’. Anyway that was my introduction to NCP, working a small spotlight by the proscenium arch. The show had a professional director, David Kelsey and a professional lead, Tony Rickell, and two casts, an A and a B cast, some of the actors being in both. The As did most of the performances and the Bs certain days, such as Sundays. I imagine the idea was that understudies got to do some performances in their own right, and if so, it was fortuitous, as Vicky Udall of the A cast hurt her foot early in the run and her B counterpart, Iris Talman, was able to step seamlessly into the role until Vicky was fit enough to come back. ‘Godspell’ was a great show to be involved with, but I didn’t really get to meet anyone, and being rather shy, didn’t push myself forward. The only person I got to know was the operative of the spotlight on the other side of the proscenium arch, Gill Hines. It was she who suggested joining the Minstrel Show, which had been in recess during ‘Godspell’, but which was due to start up again. So that was how I turned up at St George’s School Hall one evening in what was then still Caledonian Road (later Denis Pritt Road) to some refresher rehearsals organized by Benny Goodman, the brains behind the show, who devised and rehearsed (and took part in) the chorus routines.
The Minstrel Show 1974
The format of the show was a series of sketches framed by chorus routines consisting of a medley of popular songs from the ‘20s to the ‘50s at the beginning and end of each half. When I joined the show had already been going for a while and so what was a refresher rehearsal for everyone else was completely new to me. I think there four more venues booked, but I was on leave in the UK before the first of these and only came back for the last two at the Karen club and the Nairobi club. By the time I made my first appearance I had more or less learned the routines, but there were one or two things I was unsure of. At a particular point in one song, the chorus started to kick to the left and right alternately, but I couldn’t remember which was first. Given that I was in the front row, I thought I’d better check, so I asked my partner for this section, Joan Stally, whether we kicked to the left first or to the right. ‘To the left’ she said without hesitation. So, when it came to that point in the song, I confidently kicked out to the left, only to see Joan, who was standing in front of me, kicking out to the right, along with everyone else.
The Minstrel Show 1975
In the second show we gained some new members of the chorus and developed some new sketches. One new chorus member, whose name I can’t now remember, did a solo set which comprised a version of Jeremy Taylor’s ‘Red Velvet Steering Wheel Cover Driver’ and a Scotsman’s twelve days of Christmas, which consisted of receiving on each day a series of alcoholic beverages and during which the singer became progressively more drunk. He did it so well and it was extremely funny but sadly I only saw him do it once, as he left Kenya to do a course at Cranfield College, and his last performance was the night after his leaving do, evidently a lengthy, and possibly alcoholic, event, and he was too tired to repeat his previous success.
Benny Goodman liked to do a mime to a Stan Freberg comedy record, such as The Yellow Rose of Texas. For the second show he also did Freberg’s take on the Platters’ classic, The Great Pretender, as a two-hander, in which he played the bored piano player trying to liven up his rather repetitive accompaniment, to the annoyance of the singer, played by myself. This involved listening to the tape of the record repeatedly until I could mouth the words instinctively. It was great fun to do, but wasn’t without its risks. One night we’d just started the song, when the sound of the tape suddenly cut out. Fortunately the audience were laughing quite loudly at that point and so were unaware of
what had happened. I looked at Benny, who widened his eyes back at me, and then I glanced at our sound manager, Tony Bishop, who managed somehow to convey that he didn’t know what had happened either. It was a potential disaster, but just as the laughter began to subside, miraculously the sound cut back in to my great relief. It was a matter of seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. Other NCP shows
I had small roles in a number of other NCP productions, such as ‘Another Opening!’, a Christmas revue show in which Benny and I reprised The Great Pretender, and ‘Oliver!’, directed by David Kelsey. I also operated the main spotlight in ‘Genesis’, a rather strange production which I don’t think I ever fully understood, conceived by David Kelsey and Charles Bound, who had played the B cast John the Baptist in ‘Godspell’. In ‘Oliver!’ I was in the chorus, and played a knife grinder in ‘Who will buy?’ which starts with the street cries of London. There were three of us and we sang ‘Knives, knives to grind, any knives to grind’, not especially challenging though it did involve a high C, at the limits of my range, which caused me difficulty from time to time. In rehearsal we had a problem with coming in at the right time, and discussing this at one of the breaks, one of my fellow grinders, who happened also to be the Music teacher at my school, reckoned that there was a grace note that was being overlooked. Now I know nothing about music, but armed with this information, and with the bravado that accompanies the twin attributes of ignorance and youth (I was 23), I marched up to the music director, Nat Kofsky, who was sitting at the piano, and proceeded to point out where he was going wrong. Looking back on it now, I think in the circumstances his response was rather restrained, if brief. For me the Minstrel Shows were my favourite production. The performances were in less formal venues and we got to travel round the country. I went to Eldoret, Kitale and Arusha in Tanzania, where it seemed to take hours to get across the border. Some people only did the sketches, Bryan Epsom, Tim Butchard, Peter Pearce, Walter Hinds come to mind, and we had a small but wonderfully versatile ‘orchestra’ of Anne on the piano and Jack on drums (I’m afraid I’ve forgotten their surnames), joined in the second show by Cheryl on double bass. The whole thing was a team effort – there were no ‘stars’ – and my happiest memories of Kenya are associated with the minstrels. One footnote. In 1975 The Wilby Conspiracy came out, a film featuring Sidney Poitier, set in South Africa and filmed in Kenya. I went to see it at the London Pavilion near Leicester Square while on leave. The film featured various performers in NCP productions popping up as extras or in supporting roles, including quite a large scene which featured Peter Pearce (accompanied by Mike Andrews) as a South African policeman. But what particularly impressed me was that outside the cinema, on a small whiteboard that the staff had put out to advertise the films, was written ‘The Wilby Conspiracy’ and underneath, Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, Bryan Epsom. It was then that I realized how far Bryan’s fame stretched.
Stephen O’Connor December 2020