Oh…Miss Jones!
ON STAGETHE BANANA BOX

THE BANANA BOX: WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

THE BANANA BOX

By ERIC CHAPPELL
Directed By DAVID SCASE
Hampstead Theatre Club, 1973
The production later transferred to the Apollo Theatre.
The Banana Box was based on two students, one being white and the other black, who are forced to share a miserable bed-sitter in a university town based in the Midlands. The play was based around the relationships with the four central characters and the misdemeanours which were to ensue living in a run-down dwelling. Leonard Rossiter played the character of Rooksby, their seedy, prejudiced, cynical landlord with nothing better to do than walk-in on all his tenants and provoke an argument.
Following the success of the play, Rooksby was to later appear the following year as Rigsby, once Eric Chappell’s play had been transferred to television and re-titled Rising Damp.
The Times review from 1973
The Banana Box
Hampstead
Charles Lewsen
“If a cat produces a litter in a banana box, does it have kittens or bananas?” asks Rooksby, the Peeping Tom who crams two lodgers into a room intended for one, and continually breaks upon the proceedings hoping to find the coloured tenant shocking his sensibilities.
Since Rooksby is a walking catalogue of prejudices (“You can’t trust the Welsh; singing hymns one minute, kicking you in the ribs the next”) I should have realized that the student he thought was a tribal chief with 10 wives actually came from Croydon; but this revelation, along with most of the denouement of Eric Chappell’s play produced in me not delight in the inevitable explosion of a well-wrought comic device, but academic interest.
A play can’t be all bad if hesitant hero’s third act kiss is interrupted by the landlord frenziedly entering to bore a hole in the floor through which to watch a supposedly naked woman in the downstairs room – particularly if this is followed by the said woman entering in a rush and saying “Philip at last!” Philip was just about to kiss another girl.
However, in David Scase’s production the farcical climax is not supported by a firm build of obsession: Paul Jones does not make penis-envy the basis of awkward Noel’s relation to his room-mate; and the central pretence lacks texture because Don Warrington never implies that the assegai on the wall relates Philip to his origins about as firmly as stripped pine relates a Hampstead intellectual to the soil.
Leonard Rossiter’s performance of Rooksby is a marvellous realization of what the play and me production ought to be- flat-footedly marching round the set, bouncing his head with a nervous intensity to match the staccato energy of his lines (What an escape! What a bitch! What an eye-opener”) and nervously fingering his haemorrhoids as he contemplates illicit sex. Rossiter embodies the manic incongruity of the boarding house.
Frances de la Tour nicely supports the tone of incongruity, cooing “Are you alright for sugar?” at the boy who occupies the bed in which she expected to find someone else; in her handling of the purely predatory aspect of Ruth, Miss de la Tour seemed over restrained Elizabeth Adare‘s Lucy has just the gentle charm to reassure the hero who has ” never trusted girls since a little girl gave me a pill that made my water turn green.

 

What the critics said about Leonard Rossiter’s Rooksby…

Utilising his entire, very considerable repertoire of grimacing’s, shuffling’s and nervous twitches, Leonard Rossiter creates a memorable character.
P.H., Stage and Television Today
His eyes darting about like fireflies, his hands playing frantic games in his pockets when they are not scratching his bottom, his controversial stance angled as if everyone he talks to has halitosis, his mouth falling slack in alternating spasms of surprise and contempt – Mr Rossiter hilariously personifies the pinched little souls who make up the Soho mackintoshed brigades.
Milton Shulman, Evening Standard
In a big Shaftesbury Avenue house like the Apollo it seems painfully thin, as if a television Comedy Playhouse had been stretched on the rack to go the requisite two hour distance.
The one consolation is Leonard Rossiter’s typical manic performance as Rooksby. All the Rossiter mannerisms are there: the angled stance, as if everyone around has chronic halitosis, the corkscrew head movements suggesting a cobra rising from a wicker basket, the stiff-legged gait as of a man parading on stilts, the compulsive buttock-scratching as if ants were lodged in the pants.
Michael Billington, Guardian

 

What the Papers Said about The Banana Box

The Phoenix Theatre, Leicester
‘It is certainly a fresh piece of writing and has a sense of style and wit not found in every potential playwright.’
David Isaacs, Coventry Evening Telegraph
‘The relationships are exclusive to the play, but I’m sure the characters could readily be recognised in many bed-sitter colonies.’
D.D., Leicester Mercury
‘Mr Chappell obviously possesses a strong creative comic talent.’
Hinckley Times
‘Chappell’s humour has flashes of brightness and real originality… It should be emphasised that for a first stage play it is a noteworthy effort.’
Mike Fearn, Leicester Chronicle
‘For all the flimsiness of the plot, it seems to me that The Banana Box is more intelligent than any comedy I’ve seen this year, and funnier than most.’
B.A. Young, Financial Times, 10 June 1971

Hampstead Theatre Club, London

‘Mr Chappell has a gift for phrasing paragraph, but the stylistic a device, by the end of the second act, seems over-used. This is a strangely empty evening only rarely bashed into life by some flashing piece of outrageous behaviour by the indomitable Mr Rossiter.’
Michael Coveney, Plays and Players
‘Nothing of any real consequence happens in The Banana Box but the dialogue and acting ensure its success as an amusing set of variations on a hackneyed theme.’
D.F.B., The Stage and Television Today, 24 May 1973
‘Mr Eric Chappell has a nice line in throwaway, casual comic dialogue and although The Banana Box has little distinctive nevertheless an amiable to say, it is way of spending a few hours.’
Milton Shulman, Evening Standard

Oxford Playhouse, Oxford

‘It is bound to become Leonard Rossiter’s play. He seems to know every frayed nerve-end, tic. grimace and warped passion welled up in the breast of the downtrodden social outcast…his performance as Rooksby the landlord is a comic triumph.’
Don Chapman, Oxford Mail, 21 March 1973

Theatre Royal, Newcastle

‘Every once in a while there your feet with comes a play which sets you back on quite a wallop [The Banana Box is] one of those incredible pieces of playwriting that keeps you laughing from beginning to end it’s not often that you find me rocking back in a theatre seat, sore from laughing and quite ready to face the next throw-away line but it happened last night.’
Phil Penfold, Newcastle Evening Chronicle

Hampstead Theatre Club, London

‘Mr Chappell has a gift for phrasing a paragraph, but the stylistic device, by the end of the second act, seems over-used. This is a strangely empty evening only rarely bashed into life by some flashing piece of outrageous behaviour by the indomitable Mr Rossiter.’
Michael Coveney, Plays and Players
‘Nothing of any real consequence happens in The Banana Box but the dialogue and acting ensure its success as an amusing set of variations on a hackneyed theme.’
D.F.B., The Stage and Television Today, 24 May 1973
‘Mr Eric Chappell has a nice line in throwaway, casual comic dialogue and although The Banana Box has little distinctive to say, it is nevertheless an amiable way of spending a few hours.’
Milton Shulman, Evening Standard

Apollo Theatre, London

‘There are plenty of funny lines and the director (David Scase) has whipped a pretty froth on top of the trifle. The weakness of Eric Chappell’s play is that its amusing to-ing and fro-ing gives only a superficial view of growing up.’
John Barber, Daily Express
‘The play has faults; but I warmly recommend it. It is funny, and well acted, and it is about now.’
B.A. Young, Financial Times
THE BANANA BOX ABROAD – NEW YORK
 
 

The New York Times

October 2, 1979, Section C, Page 5
Stage: ‘The Banana Box, On Apartment-Sharing
By Mel Gussow
APARTMENT‐SHARING, like blind dating, can be a situation comedy. People who might not normally meet one another —opposites accidently juxtaposed in close quarters — suddenly have important things in common, such as room, breakfast and busybody landlord. That “The Banana Box,” which opened the season last night at the Hudson Guild Theater, happens to be British, means that the roommates “tune in the wireless,” “have a meal” instead of dinner, and pop their shillings into the gas meter. But the territory is as familiar as it is predictable.
In this case, the opposites are two male students who are assigned to the same apartment in a Victorian house in a British university town. Noel is white and timid. He keeps a Bible by his bedside and four stuffed animals on his dresser. When he isn’t kneeling In prayer, he is often trying to peep through a hole in the floor at a lady in a downstairs apartment. Every time that he peeps, we know that someone will open the door and catch him in the act.
His fearless black roommate boasts about being the son of an African chief, telling hair‐raising yarns about cannibalism and wrestling crocodiles. His ambition is to blacktop the jungle, which is one of many clues that he is not what he seems to be.
The playwright, Eric Chappell, expands this odd couple into a quartet. Each man is drawn both to that lady downstairs and to an attractive premed student. The pre‐med is given to instant diagnoses, such as “Manic depressive !”, a label that she applies to the only interesting person on the premises — the landlord, who unfailingly barges in at inopportune moments. The lodgers would like to get rid of him, but we look forward to his intrusions. There are times when we wish that he would stay and that they would find other accommodations.
It is no surprise that this play, after running on London’s West End, was turned into an English television series. The title of the program was “Rising Damp,” which sounds like a railroad station in an Edward Gorey Gothic, and says something about English houses and also about English television. Not everything is “Masterpiece Theater.”
As a play, “The Banana Box” is mechanical. People go offstage just so that others can talk about them. Doors open and shut on cue. One is never In doubt about the outcome of the evening. There are some smiles, particularly when the author forsakes one‐line jokes for off‐the‐wall humor, but the comedy is largely circumstantial, deriving from forced contrasts and not, essentially, from character.
As the presumed tribal leader, Howard E. Rollins Jr. somewhat overdoes the monarchical manner — he struts around the small stage as if he were Yul Brynner — while managing to suggest the man’s need to be acknowledged. Brad O’Hare stresses Noel’s naïveté without making him an absolute buffoon. Janet League and Veronica Castang, with less to do, perform capably.
Edward Zang makes the landlord oddly likable, a tea‐cozy cousin to Pinter’s “Caretaker.” Wearing two cardigans — to ward off rising damp? — Mr. Zang noses into everyone’s private business as if he were an anteater looking for lunch.
Phillipp Jung’s two‐room set appears to be inhabitable. Geoffrey Sherman’s direction does not flag even when the script is less than spirited. The evening is moderately entertaining, but one has come to expect far more at the Hudson Guild. In common with the furniture in this shared apartment, “The Banana Box” could be described as secondhand.

British Odd Couple

THE BANANA BOX, by Eric Chappell.

Directed by Geoffrey Sherman; setting by Phillipp Jung; costumes by David Murn; lighting by Patricia Moeser; Production stage manager, Thomas J. Rees.

Presented by the Hudson Guild Theater, David Kerry Heefner, producing director.

At 441 West 26th Street.

Rooksby . . . . EdwartiZang

Noel Parker . . . . Brad O’Hare

Philip Smith . . . . Howard E. Rollins Jr.

Ruth Jones . . . . Veronica Castang

Lucy . . . . Janet League

Review copyright New York Times.

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