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Sir Tom Stoppard's 'Procol' play received a fantastic review in The Sunday Times; now here's a proper Procoholic response from Sam Cameron.
THE REAL THING : Donmar Warehouse, London: 6 July 1999.
This is not intended to be a review of Tom Stoppard's play as such. The Real Thing concerns the distinction between real and artificial emotion. The tension between these is played out in terms of two devices. The first is a 'play within a play' [although there is more than one play within the play] where it is revealed only after some time that the characters first presented are actors after all. The second is the examination of the rôle of music in the experiencing of emotions. The Procol Harum dimension comes in the latter device due to the use of a feeble joke by Henry, the playwright and one suspects the autobiographical figure, stating that Bach 'stole' the tune from the band. The irony here is that, to someone whose primary emotional resonance is with the Procol Harum record, that is more 'real' than subsequent exposure to the relevant works of Bach even if he did originate the motifs of the song.
BBC Radio 4 in its arts programme Front Row [descendant of the deceased Kaleidoscope] ran a Stoppard feature when this run of the play first opened. His main point, about necessary alterations when reviving it, was the massive changes there have been in communications technology since the early 1970s. There have of course been huge musical changes as well which must present any director with the temptation to update the records which come on to the radio during the action. Perhaps the recent dance-floor smash by Sweetbox, Everything's Gonna Be Alright (with its melody much more directly taken from Air on A G String than the ad hoc scrambling of Jacques Loussier's version which the 1990s' Gary Brooker would have us believe is the true source of A Whiter Shade of Pale) would displace the Procol joke? Or perhaps the reference would be dropped altogether?. Still, given the likely background of the audiences in mind for this mind of work, my money was on the dramatic passage which had instigated this trip to the theatre remaining as in the original.
And so it was in the penultimate scene of the second, and final, act the feeble joke ushers Procol Harum into the drama. Following his quip, Henry spends the rest of the scene (text here) with the 1967 blue Deram 45 rpm of A Whiter Shade of Pale in its original white paper jacket, with a slight tear at the top of the sleeve, in his hand. This must have been fifteen about minutes in all and for the latter part he had the unprotected single under his left armpit which we all know is no way to treat your precious vinyl.
The moment when he finally plays the record is a pivotal one in his development. Having just experienced the infidelity of his second wife, Annie, he has come to terms with the fact that, beneath his facade of sneering sophistication, this love for her is the 'real thing' after all. Whilst A Whiter Shade of Pale is playing quietly on the stereo, he falls to his knees and cries "Oh no, oh no" as the screens move across the back of the set to denote the end of the scene. At this point the song is played very loudly out of the stage speakers but this was a standard ploy to end all of the scenes when other songs were featured. The other songs were generally light pop songs about love, this being typified in the use of I'm A Believer at the very end of the play [although perhaps the Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders version of Um, Um, Um, Um is a wry comment on Henry's emotional autism]. Early in the play, Henry is choosing his 'Desert Island Discs' for the radio programme of the same name and dissembling by looking for opera and 'classics' to pretend to like in preference to the very basic pop which he prefers. At one point he opines that it would not be so bad if his pop taste was something like Pink Floyd. Given the way in which A Whiter Shade of Pale is later featured, and yet not mentioned at this point, one would have to come to the conclusion that its rôle in this play is to function as a white soul ballad [akin to You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' which features early on] rather than as a piece of prog-rock / surrealism / summer of love nostalgia or whatever.
As for the effect of the Procol song on the audience, that was hard to gauge. I reckon I spotted two hearty laughs from gentleman of a certain age but no special overall frisson for this or the song itself. Finally, perhaps it is just a coincidence but the Air on a G string / A Whiter Shade of Pale part of the play come after an atypically lengthy break from musical text. During this break, Henry has been discussing virgins and Latin lessons with his seventeen year old daughter who lost her virginity to the Latin teacher at an expensive school.
Or maybe it was not a coincidence after all.