The ultimate amoral “swinger”, Alfie swaggers and philosophizes his way through a parade of ‘birds’ in 1960’s London, allowing the audience to eavesdrop as he goes. When one carefree entanglement proves too close for even Alfie’s comfort, the “swinger” lands with a thud. A hit in London, this story became a classic film that made a star of Michael Caine as the title cad.
When Alfie was selected for inclusion in the programme for 2019-20 it is unlikely that anyone realised that when it was to be staged it would coincide with another series of Call the Midwife on BBC television and also The Trial of Christine Keeler. However, that is what transpired. Fortunately the audience at The Little Theatre was predominantly middle-aged, and so will have been enjoying evenings of nostalgia courtesy of the BBC and therefore receptive and looking forward to seeing how the film that made Michael Caine’s name transferred to the stage.
On the other hand, it will have posed a problem for the director Jan Palmer Sayer as none of her cast were likely to be familiar with the 1960s and the way people behaved then would be alien to them. In the event she caught the mood of the times brilliantly. The play opened with the entire cast jiving to the pop music of the sixties as in a night club with the seating arranged around the actors so that some of the audience were actually involved in the action and transported back half a century. She used the music of the time very effectively throughout the performance, both recorded and live, as a counterpoint to the development of the play.
The problem with staging a play in the round is how to change the scenery and as usual we had tables and chairs, an armchair and even a sofa being wheeled on by members of the staff at necessary moments. There was a small table with chairs permanently at the back of the stage which featured in the scene in the pub, when members of the audience also seated there found themselves in the action. Most interestingly, the stage management had constructed a unit which served as the kitchen for a bed-sit, the bar for the pub, with a flap at the front to permit a double bed to be pushed through and even, with the use of a mobile steering wheel, to represent a car. All this ingenuity enabled the scenes to be changed almost seamlessly.
The success of this play depends very much on the actor playing Alfie. He is on the stage almost all the time and has a lot to say, particularly about women. So much so that today, in these PC times, he would probably be branded as sexist. One wonders, in fact, whether the play if it were written today would even make it to the stage. However, the Hertford audience took it all in its stride.
Sean Scotchford, who played Alfie, struck exactly the right note of cheekiness and attractiveness for women. While the play places him in Lambeth he could quite easily have come straight from the market in Petticoat Lane. Impressively, he revealed the more sensitive side to his character when early on he found himself a father with feelings to his son he had not expected; and towards the end, when Lily becomes pregnant, he managed the coup-de-theatre as he forces her to have an abortion with great effect so that his remorse, when he realises what he has done, comes across very powerfully.
Alfie is supported by a good cast. The number of characters is such that most of the actors had to double up. This could create a problem of differentiating the characters they were playing but if so it was not noticeable. In fact, in the case of the doctor/Ruby there was no possibility of mixing them up. And even the musicians were called on to play two parts, moving swiftly from the “orchestra pit” to the stage. Although Alfie is inevitably the character that catches the attention everyone else played their part so well that it all meshed in perfectly and never gave the impression of being unbalanced. At the end a natural conclusion was achieved by having the entire cast return to the stage in another jive sequence.
So very effectively the play succeeded in capturing a time we have almost forgotten, although we still have the BBC to remind us. Alfie, like Stephen Ward, really just lived for fun, although his end is quite different as his period of remorse is short lived and he reverts to his old self-interest. CoPs were quite brave in putting on this play but in the end a thoroughly enjoyable evening fully justified the choice.