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1983: Lord Audley’s Secret


Lord Audley handbill

In early 1983, thanks to a grant from Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, Consenting Adults was able to employ its first paid worker, a young man newly down from Essex University called Neil Bartlett.

It was a part-time post, which left him time to develop his own work with the 1982 Theatre Company. 

Neil contributed enormously to Lord Audley’s Secret by creating a visual style for us based on Pollock’s Toy Theatres.

The cut-out props and scenery, decorated in the Victorian manner, were something new for us. We had not been noted for our visual flair or production values.

For two years now we had been staging an annual event on Hampstead Heath on Midsummer Night. The previous production had been Teatrolley, itself based on events of ten years previously on Hampstead Heath.

Tonight upon Heath

Tonight Upon the Heath

We needed a new play and hit on a version of the Victorian workhorse, Lady Audley’s Secret, which had a scene set on Hampstead Heath - perfect for assignations! We threw in scenes from Murder in the Red Barn and Sweeney Todd, on the principle that you should always leave the audience wanting less.

Sweeney Todd and Lord Audley

In 1983 we extended the free outdoor performances to Clapham Common, the South London equivalent of the Heath.

That year it had been the site of several attacks on gay men in the cruising area.

It was part of our campaign to reclaim spaces and to show that we would not be deterred from being a visible and proud presence.

Responsibility for the Common was split between Lambeth and Wandsworth Councils. As in previous years we sought permission for performance.

Labour’s Lambeth gave it gladly but Tory Wandsworth threatened to sue us for criminal trespass, which seemed an odd crime for what was by definition common land. However, we stayed the Lambeth side of the border, which was unfortunately further from the cruising area.

The plays of 1981 and 1982 were performed by the light of large garden flares, which were suitably atmospheric. In 1983, anticipating larger audiences, we used a generator and our new GLC-funded portable lighting rig. We located the generator as far away from the performance space as possible, but still it was a battle to project over its noise.

On the Heath it worked fine, but on the Common, the generator packed up about ten minutes into the performance. Spontaneously three members of the audience rushed to their cars parked on the edge of the Common and drove them over the grass to form a semi-circle around the ‘stage’.

Jed signs pledge

Jed signs the pledge

We finished the performance in the light of the headlamps. The sight of the cars charging over the Common as cavalry to the rescue was one I will never forget.

The play also performed at the Oval House for two weeks, and at the University of London Student Union after the Pride March on 2 July. An ignorant and stupid reviewer completely missed the point of the ham melodramatic performance style, as well as being unaware that Victorian playbills frequently referred to melodramas as ‘Mellow Dramas’. He thought it was a spelling mistake. More fool him.

Looking back, it was rather too long as a play for a Heath show, though it made up for that with a mass of deaths by asphyxiation, drowning and knocks on the head, multiple revelations, and a complete genuine burning barn - one person jumping up and down in front of a spotlight with an orange gel.

Peter Scott-Presland, December 2020

Read the Script

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Other Images from Lord Audley’s Secret
Jane as Taramasalata
Andy as Toadspawn

Jane as Taramasalata & Andy as Toadspawn

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Andy as Toadspawn

Death of Taramasalata

Death of Taramasalata

Fi as Lady Audley

Fi as Lady Audley

Barry Neil and Augustus

Barry, Neil and Augustus