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Once in a Lifetime (1979)

Once in a Lifetime

A Royal Shakespeare Company production of a play by Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman, performed at the Aldwych Theatre, London (opened 4 September 1979).

Performance length: 3 hours (including two intervals)


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The first photo, which is from the Piccadilly run, shows Zoë Wanamaker and another cast member in rehearsal.  The remaining photos are from the Aldwych run.  The second shows (from left to right) Jerry Hyland (played by Peter McEnery), George Lewis (Richard Griffiths), and May Daniels (Zoë Wanamaker) struck by the idea of making their fortunes in Hollywood.  The third shows Jerry, May, and George on the train for Hollywood.  The fourth shows George and May.  The fifth shows Florabel Leigh (Cheryl Hall), Phyllis Fontaine (Diana Van Fossen), Herman Glogauer (David Suchet), and Helen Hobart (Gaye Brown), with the new voice coaches, Jerry and May.  The sixth shows George and May.


The introduction of films with sound in the late 1920s encourages three enterprising vaudeville performers, May Daniels, Jerry Hyland, and George Lewis, to leave New York and head for Hollywood in Once in a Lifetime

Rather than wanting to perform in the new 'talkies', sparky May and her friends seek their fortunes on the other side of the camera, by establishing an elocution school for silent film stars.  (It was no longer sufficient to look the part on screen, you had to sound right too!) 

A chance meeting during their journey leads to the trio being hired by the Herman Glogauer Studio, where May's lack of experience as voice coach quickly becomes apparent.  Meanwhile, the rather dim George unexpectedly finds himself the toast of Hollywood with his unorthodox approach to filmmaking.

This was the premiere production of Once in a Lifetime in the UK.  With its huge cast, the show effectively evoked the excitement and hubbub of the US film industry during the Twenties.  Enormously ambitious and successful, the production is well remembered today.


George Lewis ... Richard Griffiths
May Daniels ... Zoë Wanamaker
Jerry Hyland ... Peter McEnery (Paul Greenwood at the Piccadilly)
A Porter ... Keith Hodiak
Helen Hobart ... Gaye Brown
Susan Walker ... Toria Fuller (Glynis Barber at the Piccadilly)
Cigarette Girl ... Susannah Fellows (Colette Hiller at the Piccadilly)
Coat Check Girl ... Helen Brammer
Bellboy ... Allan Hendrick (Tony Robinson at the Piccadilly)
First Couple ... Michael Bertenshaw and Kate Fitzgerald
Second Couple ... George Raistrick and Darlene Johnson (Anita Graham at the Piccadilly)
Florabel Leigh ... Cheryl Hall (Linda Regan at the Piccadilly)
Phyllis Fontaine ... Diana Van Fossen
Miss Leigh's chauffer ... Ian Reddington (Michael Bertenshaw at the Piccadilly)
Miss Fontaine's chauffer ... Brian Abbott
Miss Lane's maid ... Susan Dury (Kate Fitzgerald at the Piccadilly)
Miss Fontaine's maid ... Jocelyn Cunningham (Joan Morrow at the Piccadilly)
A Cowboy Star ... Philip McGough (Emlyn Harris at the Piccadilly)
Mrs Walker, Susan's mother ... Valerie Lush
Ernest ... John Nettles (Vincent Marzello at the Piccadilly)
Buddy Rogers ... Thomas Fahy
Mr Weisskopf ... Arthur White (Daniel Benzali at the Piccadilly)
Mr Weisskopf's companion ... Kate Fitzgerald
Mr Meterstein ... Geoffrey Freshwater
Miss Chasen ... Juliet Stevenson (Helen Brammer at the Piccadilly)
Herman Glogauer ... David Suchet
A Policeman ... David Bradley
Miss Leighton ... Carmen Du Sautoy
First Page ... Bill Buffery (Tony Robinson at the Piccadilly)
Second Page ... Alan Barker
Art Sullivan (scenario writer) ... John Nettles (Vincent Marzello at the Piccadilly)
Victor Moulton (scenario writer) ... Michael Bertenshaw
Oliver Foulton (scenario writer) ... David Bradley
Lawrence Vail ... Ian Charleson (Harry Ditson at the Piccadilly)
Rudolph Kammerling ... Paul Brooke (Robert Putt at the Piccadilly)
First Electrician ... Philip McGough (Daniel Benzali at the Piccadilly)
Second Electrician ... Brian Abbott
Mr Flick ... Geoffrey Freshwater
First Cameraman ... Stuart Organ (Thomas Fahy at the Piccadilly)
Second Cameraman ... Michael Siberry (Emlyn Harris at the Piccadilly)
Truckman ... Keith Hodiak
First Light Man ... Philip McGough (Daniel Benzali at the Piccadilly)
Second Light Man ... Arthur White (not in Piccaddilly production)
Studio Electrician ... Brian Abbott
The Bishop ... George Raistrick
Bridesmaids ... Susan Dury, Helen Brammer, Kate Fitzgerald, Jocelyn Cunningham, Susannah Fellows, and Darlene Johnson (Kate Fitzgerald, Anita Graham, Colette Hiller, Joan Morrow, Linda Regan, and Diana Van Fossen at the Piccadilly)
Cyril Fonsdale ... Ian Reddington (Michael Bertenshaw at the Piccadilly)
Doctor Lewis's Secretary ... Allan Hendrick (Tony Robinson at the Piccadilly)
Continuity Girl ... Cheryl Hall
Script Girl ... Diana Van Fossen
Artist ... Ian Reddington (Thomas Fahy at the Piccadilly)
Biographer ... Stuart Organ (Vincent Marzello at the Piccadilly)
Tie Salesman ... Michael Bertenshaw
Reporter ... Philip McGough (Emlyn Harris at the Piccadilly)

In addition to the extremely large number of characters, according to the theatre programme, '[f]irst nighters, reporters, photographers, sailors, showgirls, passengers, beach belles, Schlepkin brothers, extras, etc. are played by pretty much everybody'!


At the Aldwych
Director: Trevor Nunn
Staged by: Gillian Lynne
Music: Jim Parker
Designer: John Napier
Ladies' Costumes: Andreane Neofitou
Lighting Designer: Robert Bryan
Assistant Director: Walter Donohue Stuart Mungall
Stage Manager: Philip Hoare
Deputy Stage Manager: David Grindrod
Assistant Stage Manager: Caroline Howard
Sound: Roland Morrow and John A Leonard
Theatre Programme: Ellen Goodman
Theatre Programme Designers: Ginni Moo-Young and Roger Walton
Production Photographer: Donald Cooper
Musicians: Alan Gout/Gordon Kember (Musical Director/piano), Victor Slaymark (saxophone), Peter Whittaker (bassoon), Peter Cameron (trumpet), Roderick Tearle (trumpet), Brian Newman (horn), Duncan Hollowood (horn/tuba), David Hissey (trombone), Alan Walley (double bass), George Weigand (banjo), Tony McVey (percussion), and Nigel Garvey (percussion)


When Zoë first read Once in a Lifetime, at the request of director Trevor Nunn, she found that it struck a chord with her American heritage and cultural background.  As she told The Times a few years after appearing in the play, 'for the first time in my career I knew I was home; not only geographically, in America, but theatrically too'.

Once in a Lifetime is one of the many productions in which Zoe has appeared with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company.  She joined the RSC at a very interesting stage in its development, sensing an exciting new dynamic among the actors.  'Some of us now at the RSC have a different sort of energy that has not been smoothed, shined or made acceptable.  I like that', she commented at the time (see 'I Yearn To Be So Free and Comfortable on That Stage' interview).

Her sparkling performance as May Daniels in this production won Zoe the 1979 Society of West End Theatre (now known as Olivier) Award for Actress of the Year in a Revival, as well as the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress.

When they worked together on Once in a Lifetime, Zoë was already firm friends with David Suchet.  As she has since explained: 'I knew him long before that [production].  We enjoyed working with each other a lot during that period' (see 'Zoe's an Actress with Drive' interview).  In 1988, they reprised their roles for a TV adaptation of Once in a Lifetime.

In addition to Once in a Lifetime, Zoë's RSC productions during the 1970s include The Devil's Disciple (1976), Ivanov (1976), Wild Oats (1976), The Taming of the Shrew (1978), Captain Swing (1978), and Piaf (1978).  The latter was performed alongside Once in a Lifetime at the Piccadilly, as mentioned on the theatre's flyer.  During the 1980s, she returned to the company for Twelfth Night (1983), The Comedy of Errors (1983), Mother Courage and Her Children (1984), and Othello (1989).

Press coverage

'The RSC actors throw themselves into the fray with a will, and the show is a constant joy,' enthused Gordon Gow in Plays & Players.  He added: 'Zoe Wanamaker makes much of her choice wisecracks as May and looks a treat in the garb of the period, while striking a most authentic air'.  The Guardian summed up the show as 'a knockout'!


At the Aldwych, according to the theatre programme, theatregoers could purchase a 'full-colour limited edition poster, specially designed for this production of Once in a Lifetime'.  At the Piccadilly, the play's text, posters, and badges were advertised for sale.  I believe greetings cards showing costume designs were also available at one or both theatres.

Related links

Once in a Lifetime guide - David Suchet Fansite

Once in a Lifetime (Aldwych Theatre) production information - Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Once in a Lifetime (Piccadilly Theatre) production information - Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

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