I don’t entirely understand the compulsion to write diaries. But I certainly love reading them; it’s almost addictive. And I think that’s because candour seems to go hand-in-hand with diary writing, so that the reader often gets a ‘warts and all’ glimpse of a life. And that’s certainly true of the diaries of Kenneth Tynan, on which the play ‘Tynan’ is based.
Kenneth Peacock Tynan was one of the foremost drama critics (if not the foremost critic) in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. For some, his reviews were an art form, and there’s no doubt that he was enormously influential. But he was much more than simply a critic. As his daughter Tracy says in her programme notes, he ‘was constantly re-inventing himself as stage director, bullfight aficionado, raconteur, essayist, screenwriter and TV personality’. Tynan was Literary Adviser at the National Theatre between 1963 and 1973, and devised the (then) scandalous ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ review in 1968. He’s also renowned as being the first person to use the word f*** on British Television.
He began writing his diaries in 1970 and kept up with them for a decade until his death in Santa Monica, California in 1980. According to his daughter, he had expressed a wish that they be published since he believed they contained some of his best writing, and judging by what is contained in the play, he may well have been right.
‘Tynan’ has been excellently adapted from the diaries by Colin Chambers and Richard Nelson (who also directs this production), and features Corin Redgrave as the star of this one man show.
The set for ‘Tynan’ is almost as simple as you can get – a chair on which Redgrave sits for the duration of the performance, with a red backdrop behind him on which is inscribed: “I know it’s bad form to kick a man when he’s down. But what do you do if the man who is down is also doing the kicking?”
Redgrave looks comfortable in this role from the outset. Relaxed and engaging with the audience as though he were taking tea with some friends, or having a few drinks in a quiet bar, he reels off 90 minutes worth of reminiscences, anecdotes, gossip, and graphic descriptions about Tynan’s sexual desires and encounters (he was apparently heavily into corporal punishment – spanking – and seems to have had an anal fixation). Much of these ‘stories’ are very funny indeed. For example, there’s Alan Bennet’s comment about Christopher Plummer: “He’s his own worst enemy – but only just”. Or when Tynan compares his wife and mistress as the difference between curry and French cooking. Or when he gives a graphic description of taking alcohol anally rather than orally, resulting in considerable pain and discomfort.
But there’s more to this show than humorous anecdotes, because the jokey reminiscences are intermingled with notes about Tynan’s declining health (he had emphysema exacerbated by heavy smoking which he claimed was a necessary part of the writing process), his mounting financial indebtedness and other aspects of his emotional state such as the guilt he felt for not having helped his mother to live longer even though he could have done so.
Redgrave makes no attempt to ‘copy’ or mimic Tynan’s speech or mannerisms if my memory of Kenneth Tynan is reliable on that subject. But I think this was an excellent directorial decision, because it allows Redgrave the freedom to concentrate on getting across Tynan’s wit, words and personality. And the result is a moving and riveting performance that had the audience totally absorbed. Deservedly a winner for Redgrave and all concerned.
What other critics had to say.....
LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Redgrave is very good, but not good enough to stop you wishing that you had stayed home to read the diaries." DOMINIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, " Compelling, quite unmissable." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "It’s an engrossing 90-minute performance in a candid account of Tynan’s tractionless genius in his last decade."