REVIEW: The Best of the West End: The Life and Work of Frith Banbury by Charles Duff

While this examination of theatre and the work of Frith Banbury is absorbing in places – the tone and style in which it has been written feels all over the place.

This book it has to be said is a bit of a puzzlement. Part biography, part theatrical history, part play analysis, The Best of the West End has many different components to it that can make it a struggle to keep up with the direction it takes as well as the tone in which Charles Duff writes feels a little pompous in places.

The main purpose of this book is to make the argument that there was plenty of good theatrical work around prior 1956, before the arrival of John Osborne and the Angry Young Men at the Royal Court Theatre caught many people’s attention. This is focused on through the life and career of Frith Banbury, an actor, producer and director who saw many different changes in theatre through the 1930’s and beyond, highlighting key productions he was involved with as well as the playwrights and actors who starred in the productions.

It has to be said that initially the writing is considerably dry, making it difficult in places to really settle back and absorb – in particular the biographical section focusing on Banbury’s childhood and how he ended up in theatre, feels a little stilted. However, the writing really flourishes when it comes to analysing plays (that perhaps would come across as considerably dated these days) and shining a light on lesser known playwrights – some of whom by the sounds of things really deserve to be rediscovered.

By framing the history of theatre from the 1930’s onwards through the career of one person, it really helps allow deeper context to the background of theatre and changing ideas and attitudes during this time – which makes this an ideal read for anybody looking to get into the theatre industry in terms of playwriting. There are also plenty of flamboyant characters, stories that highlight the stress and strain of putting on a theatre production for everybody involved – particularly if they have certain ideas in mind. But this being said, because the style changes throughout, it can be difficult to see the direction or the main argument that Charles Duff is trying to put forward – he comes backwards and forwards with his arguments about the strength of theatre pre-1956.

It also feels slightly rushed, making a quick observation before moving onto the next point. It is a shame as I feel that there are many points made that Duff could have gone into deeper detail. Yet, it does succeed in revealing that Frith Banbury was a person of great influence in theatre and perhaps didn’t get the credit that perhaps he deserved.

A gradually interesting read, it is perhaps best suited for someone looking to get into playwriting or directing due to the way in which it highlights potential pitfalls and the encouragement it gives in discovering new writing. Is it an entirely successful book? No – the style and tone of it suggests it needs re-writing to offer a new look at this period of time in theatrical history (this book was originally published in 1995 under the title of The Lost Summer) but it does make some interesting points that deserve thinking about for theatre makers today.

By Emma Clarendon

The Best of the West End: The Life and Work of Frith Banbury by Charles Duff is available to buy now.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

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