Keep throwing stones

From the CAST theatre company to New Variety and the Hackney Empire, Roland and Claire Muldoon have been at the heart of cultural dissent for the past four decades. By Jane Shallice

December 18, 2007 · 12 min read

Forty years is a long time for two artists to work together. Roland and Claire Muldoon are two such exceptional people who have worked since the 1960s performing for working class audiences at the cutting edge of a ‘counter-hegemonic’ theatre with socialism at its core. Their story is one of continuity through change and constant reinvention. In 1967, they created CAST (the Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre), in the 70s formed CAST New Variety and in 1986 they began 20 years of running the Hackney Empire. Now they are reinventing again at The Cock, a Victorian pub on Kilburn High Road in London.

I can recall the excitement that I felt when Roland arrived in Bristol in the early 1960s. ‘I’d always been a natural show off, written plays at school, been influenced by the Goon Show and the anarchy and surreality of everything – and being a Monsieur Hulot,’ he says. This 20-year-old, larger than life ‘post bohemian’ moved from a building site in Bristol to the Old Vic theatre school. ‘They didn’t want me as an actor but accepted me on a technicians’ course.’

He had an appetite for performance with wit and quickness of thought and a patter that grabbed you and made you want to engage with him immediately – or quickly escape. Working on the sites he’d become political and was part of the first strike in a drama school,. He, however, remembers being influenced at this time by a grotesque production of Ubu Roi; the anarchy and brilliance of Pere Ubu found a living model in Roland Muldoon.

Claire arrived in Bristol from Bradford at the same time. She too was working class, leaving school at 14 and working as a teleprinter operator. Her performing background had been ballet and tap: ‘I couldn’t afford to do both, so I sat in on the tap and learnt that way!’

Unity Theatre

After his stint at drama school Roland went to London to another building site and joined the Communist-run Unity Theatre, where he became company stage manager. ‘It was a wonderful thing to be part of that working class theatre but they were completely rigid about everything. They’d got a letter from Sean O’Casey or his estate saying that he wouldn’t have anything to do with them and they were stunned that he wouldn’t have anything to do with the one true church.’

Claire followed: ‘I was sort of with Roland but wasn’t and I wanted somewhere to live so stayed with him.’ Ironically, she says that she’d given up ‘a good career in the City’ to go to ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) in a building shared by the Pan African Congress, the Movement for Colonial Freedom, the Connolly Association and the Caribbean Workers Association.

At Unity Roland became the sacrificial goat when the party discovered dissent. He was expelled, being labelled a ‘Freudian Trotskyist’. In search of a centre, Roland enrolled as a teacher at the Working Men’s College in Camden Town, and a small group of us enrolled as his class. ‘They’d thought we were going to be doing Ibsen; instead we were improvising and building the groundwork for our style,’ he says.

Our influences were rock and roll, and the immediacy of advertising images (much as we hated them), and plays were being developed through improvisation, choreographed and filmically cut and edited. All centred on a Muggins figure. ‘We’d developed a style, and what was being formed was forming us as well,’ says Claire.


CAST’s first play was John D Muggins, a young GI in Vietnam, which began with a small group of actors racing towards the audience pointing and shouting, ‘John D Muggins is dead. For what reason did he die?’ ‘We had three chairs and you jumped up and did it in 20 minutes,’ says Roland. ‘Our publicity was we could play anywhere; we could play in a telephone box!’ The rehearsing was in any spaces possible: church halls, the basement of the Architects Association and photographers’ studios. We had no money and would get on the bus to go to performances carrying red flags, ladders and props.

For CAST the 1960s meant struggles for national liberation, the civil rights movements in the US and Vietnam. We were young, committed and immensely energetic. There was constant intense discussion and argument – none of us knew much but there was an enormous appetite and once we’d shaped a play there was an urgency to perform. ‘It was art which was the magic ingredient,’ Roland emphasises. ‘We were thinking art and politics. They said you couldn’t talk about religion and politics, which made you want to talk about them. Similarly with art and politics. We made it work. When you were on stage you were about your free expression of yourself in the discipline of the play, the way a jazz musician in a jazz band was expected to fill their moment. We were artists. We loved the French film, Les Enfants du Paradis, where the mime artist was freed from the restriction of the writer.’

A series of plays followed John D, such as Mr Oligarchy’s Circus and Muggins Awakening, performed in pubs, trade union branches, student meetings, and even in the Roundhouse. They were not stories but dialectical presentations of arguments and ideas, using juxtaposed archetypical images. Roland was always critical of middle class people entering the theatre thinking they were bringing socialism to the working class: ‘We’d come out of this post-war working class generation. When we played to striking miners they were smoking pot and were all rock and roll.’ His maxim was ‘If you eat a Wall’s pork sausage you know what capitalism is!’

In the 1970s CAST split. One half went with Red Saunders and helped to develop Rock against Racism and Kartoon Klowns, who brilliantly forced the rock and roll world to look at itself and its relation to the National Front. CAST rebuilt itself, got an Arts Council grant, extended its touring, including in 1981 to New York where Roland was awarded an Obie (Off-Broadway theatre award) for Confessions of a Socialist. By this time Roland and Clair had two daughters, Laura and Alison.

With Thatcher in power they and other radical theatres lost their grants. The 7:84 company (the name comes from a statistic about 7 per cent of the people having 84 per cent of the wealth) went to Scotland. Belt and Braces gave up. CAST decided they were going into comedy. They’d already found the Arts Council regime restricting. ‘We cheated and twisted but they imposed an agenda,’ says Roland. ‘We never stopped being rude about the system and the last one we did was Sedition 81 where we cut the queen’s head off, assassinated everybody and gave out free joints to the audience as a tax rebate. We knew they were after us and the only way to go was to keep throwing stones at them’.

New Variety

New Variety was developing and was better suited to the period. For Roland, ‘You can say anything to real audiences, it’s more dynamic than plays. I wanted something I’d not heard before, and the only place was in stand-up. It carries the baton for popular theatre.’ Popular theatre in Britain had meant music hall: British, imperialist and reactionary.

CAST wanted a popular theatre about politics and art, provoking you to laugh while recognising the horror. It was not to be documentary, nor carrying tablets of stone; it needed to express the chaos that we were in.

CAST had the equipment, organised a circuit and with the GLC arts funding at the time of the miners’ strike, they became popular. Paul Merton, Billy Bragg, French and Saunders, Julian Clary, Benjamin Zephaniah and acts like Linda Smith, Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel came in and CAST transported itself to become CAST Presentations, touring their panto Reds under the Bed with the stand-up acts. Traditionally variety had been reactionary; from the late 1970s it began to express a left popular culture. Homophobia was out, racism out, sexist acts out.

CAST was a collective but they were organising individual acts where each person paid their own stamp. This was a crucial change economically. Roland emphasises: ‘Ben Elton has become much maligned but he was there on Friday Night Live attacking the system. They were getting onto telly: Harry Enfield and Loadsa Money, a great satirical character summing up the horror that Thatcher was inventing.’

But its popularity meant the money-makers came in and took over. ‘We weren’t shocked by it,’ Claire says with a laugh. ‘You come from the working class, you don’t expect anything but hard work. You failed your 11-plus; you were already out!’

The Hackney Empire

In demolishing the GLC, with its generous arts budgets, Thatcher again ensured that CAST’s money was ending and they had to reassess their position. ‘Tom Jones, our administrator at the time, rang Mecca and asked if they had anywhere and they said, “You can have the Hackney Empire!” Thirteen hundred seats! I always thought taking it over was like workers control. Anarchists always wanted a printing press. We’d have a theatre. If we could make a popular venue outside the scheme of things, in Hackney, it would be an Aladdin’s cave.’

The opening up of the Empire in the dark days of 1986, when there was no money and everything was being pared back, was electric. Suddenly there was a magnificent building, and whatever its run-down state, it became a venue in the centre of Hackney, one of the poorest boroughs, for new variety, ballet, touring theatres, opera, orchestras, and pantomime. They put on popular entertainment and for Roland one of his proudest successes was finding Slava Polunin, the Russian clown, who transformed clowning.

For Claire the whole experience at the Empire ‘was exciting but there was always difficulty about money. The Barbican gets millions each year and we had to manage on £60,000. But we were identified with the black theatre and audiences for it were massive. The refurbishment was hard work but friends, now celebs, came back to support us. But the difficult thing was fighting the administrative caste taking over the arts.’

In the late 1990s they got a grant through the Arts Council and the Lottery for the refurbishment with a requirement to get matching funding, involving sums outside the scope of fundraising on the left. The Empire had to attract City money. In allocating funds, the Lottery imposed a new wave of people, one of whom, weirdly enough the last chief executive of Barings bank, became the chair. The board was meek in the face of the authorities, and the process led to the marginalisation of Roland and Claire. Their last years at the Empire were therefore hard.

Claire wanted out when she heard in 2004 they were introducing yet another management consultant – the sixth in all – as soon as they’d reopened. ‘I was insulted. The day they got this Barings man I knew that I wouldn’t go through their hoops. They’d no idea of the particular nature of CAST and our past. We had been administrators, technicians, developing a group and we were also performers. We weren’t middle class – we didn’t make notes at meetings – and for them working class people shouldn’t be running things like this!’ The Arts Council insisted on appointing marketing people and ‘once we had lost the power of the marketing we’d lost the theatre’.

‘The Arts Council wouldn’t subsidise black theatre. We were putting on popular black farces with huge audiences where black working class people came and paid £22 to see home-grown Caribbean farce, for which not a penny of the Arts Council money was available and is still not.’ Roland sums it up: ‘Although we’re a living legend in Hackney the board were pleased to see the back of us. We know in those circumstances you cannot win. What we achieved is great but we lost the battle.’

The Cock in Kilburn

Having now taken over the Cock in Kilburn, they’ll have to sell the beer to make it pay. ‘We want to provide a base freed of the Jongleur/ McDonaldisation pressure of conformity of stand -up comedy,’ says Roland. ‘Here comedy can be free from the move towards laddish, sexist forms. We can link up with other little places and independent venues through Britain, and keep the genre alive.’

Roland finishes with questions: ‘Can we support and fund a genre that we are fascinated by? Could we, with our daughter Laura, with us since she was tearing tickets at the age of nine, make it work? Can we become performers again?’

In the present circumstances, without subsidies, he feels it’s back to the old penny gaff and the music hall, where the arts were supported by sales of alcohol. ‘The irony is that it isn’t reactionary. At Unity I saw a play about Captain Swing – in the penny gaffs of the 1830s there was sedition in the popular culture!’

The new venture of The Cock could be great. Monday night will be Gramsci Night, ‘where poor intellectuals are let in free’. Arthur Smith will compere comedy on some Fridays. Other evenings will run with live music and new acts. Support is coming from Omid Djalili, Jo Brand and Felix Dexter, among others.

Roland and Claire identify themselves as part of the generation of Bob Dylan and John Lennon. ‘People criticised Dylan because he wasn’t consistently left wing but he was a poet, and part of our success as CAST was that we are catholic in our taste,’ Roland says.

‘If the socialist revolution ever came we would depend on the engineers and the teachers and the energy of people who make things happen and are not motivated by making money. Younger people are alienated and the left has to change. There’s nothing that shows the alternative. Against orthodox left positions, I say – let a thousand weeds bloom!’

Coming soon at the Cock Tavern Gramsci Club: Whither the counter culture or is it whithering?

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