Magazine article The Spectator

'Get Me the Urgent Biscuits: An Assistant's Adventures in Theatreland', by Sweetpea Slight - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Get Me the Urgent Biscuits: An Assistant's Adventures in Theatreland', by Sweetpea Slight - Review

Article excerpt

The story of Sweetpea Slight is a footnote to a footnote in the annals of British theatre. Even her name suggests it -- a gentle, fragrant vanishing off the bottom of the page. In fact, it isn't even her real name (which is Jane), but one given her by her formidable boss, the theatre producer Thelma Holt. She spotted her as a gangly, impressionable 18-year-old on an internship at the Theatre of Comedy in 1984, deflected her from her plan to become an actor and swept her into the role of factotum, where she remained for 20 years.

The moniker caused one moment of confusion, when it emerged that Dustin Hoffman, in London to play Shylock in Peter Hall's production of The Merchant of Venice, produced by Holt, answered to the same. 'It transpired that this had been his nickname since babyhood because he used to crawl up everything. So this was how Dustin and I bonded and became the two Sweetpeas.'

It's a nice anecdote, but it reveals the problem with the book. Whether thanks to her psychology or discretion, Slight never reveals much about the people who swim around her. On the next page, she describes Hoffman as 'very likeable and unstarry' and adds: 'I felt privileged to watch him at work.' It's not really earth-shattering.

Throughout the book certain characters -- Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Helen Mirren -- emerge with grace and compassion, and others -- including the unnamed actor who fondled Slight's breasts while his wife was in the outer office -- make a less attractive appearance on her stage. We learn that Vanessa Redgrave chopped up a £1,500 wig in a bid to find her character and filled a bath with snakeskin shoes in an attempt to make her own costume, but we don't understand any more about her craft than we did when we started reading.

This lack of insight is compounded by the fact that all too often Slight is literally on the sidelines, missing the real action. When Holt and Hall took productions on a ground-breaking Russian tour, Slight never got further than Gatwick airport. She may have had to deal with their problems by phone, but it's not quite the same as hiding in a ditch to avoid the KGB and get to a forbidden party -- which is what Holt was up to at the time. …

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