It’s half a century since Oh! Calcutta! opened in London, shocking some theatregoers and delighting others by bringing extended scenes of male and female nudity to British theatre for the first time.
It ran for years, though its former cast insist it was never just an exercise in titillating the audience. But attitudes to sex have changed, so could anyone possibly make a hit of Oh! Calcutta! all over again?
Margo Sappington and Linda Marlowe are perfectly aware that when people talk today about Oh! Calcutta! it’s mainly because they – and the whole cast, male and female – got their kit off for much of the evening. At the time it was radical.
The show was a collection of sketches and songs centred on sex. It was the creation of Kenneth Tynan, widely acclaimed as the most brilliant drama critic in London of the 1950s and 60s. He had invited writers such as Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams and John Lennon to supply material, though several contributions fell by the wayside.
The show’s title is a play on the French “O quel cul t’as”, meaning, “Oh what a backside you have”.
Tynan was taking advantage of the ending in 1968 of Britain’s stage censorship laws. Oh! Calcutta! opened at the Roundhouse in London in 1970, having been seen in New York the previous year.
The dancer Sappington choreographed and performed in both versions.
“I’d been working as assistant to Michael Bennett who later became famous for directing A Chorus Line. But Michael decided to pull out of Oh! Calcutta! and at the age of 21 I was suddenly asked to take over the choreography.
“It was always a given there would be nudity, though we never got naked until virtually the end of rehearsals. The director eased us into it very gently and by the time we took our clothes off it didn’t seem so shocking. It was the same when I moved to London to do the show the next year.”
Marlowe can boast a long and defiantly non-standard acting career, ranging from her early years as a 60s glamour girl of British cinema to several plays by Steven Berkoff, and three years as Sylvie Carter in EastEnders. Even so, she remembers being unconvinced at first that appearing naked on stage was for her.
“In 1970, for a serious actress it was unheard of. But I was asked to meet Ken Tynan and the director Clifford Williams.
Original publication 29 October, 2020
Posted on NatCorn 10th November 2020
Reference to an article does not infer endorsement of any views expressed.