Francis Beckett

After 46 years I had hoped I'd meet N.F. Simpson again.  But on the preview night of If So, Then Yes, he wasn't there. He was due the next night, apparently.

Which is a great shame.  In 1964, he man who invented absurdity - the creator of the speak your weight machines which were being taught to sing the Hallelujah Chorus - taught English A-level at the City of Westminster College.  I was one of his students. Actually, he thought I was rather talented.  He said so.


He was a tall, thin, dapper man in smart suits - all the other lecturers wore shabby suits, as befitted their salaries.  We studied Much Ado About Nothing, and Emma, and much more, and he was a clear, thoughtful and utterly normal teacher.  He looked and sounded a little like a prosperous accountant, rather than a man who could write stunningly funny non sequiters:

"There's a man outside  wants you to form a government."

"At this time of night?"

He made enough money not to work for a long time, and spent more than a decade touring the canals and writing not a word.  He's 92 and this is his first full length theatre work since 1972.

It's a bit over-long and patchy, but the best of the lines are as good as anything he ever wrote.  "If it's the divine presence you're looking for, you'd hasve to go a long way to beat Clacton, in my opinion." Or there's the vicar who says: "This whole question in fact of body hair in relation to the deity is in the melting pot at the moment, but the thinking generally nowadays is moving very much towards the concept of a clean-shaven God."

The play is really a very elderly man's uncertain but unafraid glimpse of death.

It deserved faster production, and it did not deserve the most pretentious programme analysis I've ever read, from a director who could have given it pace rather than academic gravitas.  Simpson, of all writers, should not be written about like this: "This is choric writing of the highest order, from a central dramatic voice which connects us instantly and unerringly back to Eliot and his sources."