Elvis spotted in Hornchurch
It's Now or Never comedy farce by Miles Tredinnick starring Peter Polycarpou and Tony Roper. Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch. Directed by Marina Calderone.
First Night of It’s Now or Never with Leyton Sommers as Elvis, Screaming Lord Sutch (right), the celebrity lookalikes and me (with Tony Roper between my legs!)
I once wrote a farce called It’s Now or Never about Elvis Presley still being alive. The premise being that a couple of Elvis fanatics stumble across the King alive and well and hiding from the world in a secluded Marbella villa. They then decide to kidnap him and sell their story to a British tabloid newspaper. Of course, as in all farces, things go drastically wrong and it ends up with one of the guys wearing a wedding dress and running amok with a chainsaw before the entire set gets destroyed! Brilliant special effects and amazing to watch!

The play was unusual in that it had been published before ever being staged. Michael Callahan at Warner Chappell Plays, in a rare show of confidence that I knew my farce from my elbow, had taken a punt on it. I’m not sure that was true then (or even now) as the very nature of this type of theatre relies on a lucky combination of expert farceurs, tight direction and a script that veers all over the place at 1000 miles an hour yet snaps together like a jigsaw puzzle! Everyone thinks farces are easy to write but in my experience they’re quite the opposite. You have to approach it like an algebraic equation. Ben Travers once said that farce is ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Well Elvis Presley being alive and hiding in Spain is about as extraordinary as it gets so a huge thanks to Michael for having faith in the play.

In some ways it was a sequel to an earlier play of mine Laugh? I Nearly Went to Miami! which had been published by Samuel French Ltd. I used the lead couple from that comedy, Tom and Alice, in the new play which I had originally titled ‘Laugh? I Nearly Went to Marbella!’ They worked so well as a bickering couple that I wanted to use them again.

My agent Tessa Le Bars had sent a copy of the play to director Marina Caldarone who had just taken over running the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch. Fortunately she liked it enough to plan a production for the following spring and experienced West End hands Rod Coton (Bill Kenwright Company) and Joe Scott-Parkinson (Michael Codron Ltd) came on board with a view to transferring it to the West End if it was a hit. As it turned out that was never going to happen but we all had a riot of a time trying to achieve one.

We had a first-rate cast led by Peter Polycarpou and Tony Roper. Peter, of course, I knew from Birds of a Feather, a show that I’d worked on the previous year although I had never actually met him. I was delighted he agreed to play Keith, the Elvis obsessed Essex plumber who retires to a sun-drenched villa in Marbella only to discover that his idol secretly lives next door. Peter is always totally convincing and with his spot-on comedy timing he played the part perfectly. Also I was a bit chuffed that he had come to us not long after playing the title role in The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. I had myself worked at that theatre as a box-office clerk just a few weeks earlier.

Tony Roper I knew from his role as Jamesie in the Rab C. Nesbitt TV show. Again, his timing and delivery as Tom couldn’t be faulted and he kept us chuckling away during rehearsals. Even more hilarious were his endless supply of one-liners and anecdotes that he would entertain us with at the end of each day. It was no surprise that when he put them all into his excellent autobiography ‘I’ll No Tell You Again’ that Billy Connolly no less, agreed to write the foreword.

Heather Alexander played Alice, Tom’s eternal fiancee, and got laughs galore. I had seen ex-Hot Gossip member Heather on stage before when she appeared with David Jason in Look No Hans! at the Strand Theatre and knew she would be perfect. The ever-reliable Stephen Bent and Jacqueline Stirling played a Spanish police inspector and the local dry-cleaner respectively. And Jennifer Piercey took the second act comedic honours as a crazy tabloid journalist who is convinced Elvis Presley wants to marry her!

But the biggest challenge was finding someone to play ‘Elvis’. He had to look enough like the King himself to convince the audience he was the real thing whilst at the same time handle some tricky comedy routines on stage. Rod and Joe decided that the ‘search for Elvis’ might be a terrific publicity stunt and placed an ad in that week’s ‘Stage’ newspaper. All our play needed was the best Elvis lookalike in the country but would anyone be interested?

A week later I turned up at the Queen’s Theatre and was astounded to see Elvises everywhere all waiting to be auditioned. They were sitting in cars in the car park, drinking coffee in the theatre cafe, even having a nervous jimmy riddle in the Gents. Every time you went in there, there was an Elvis lookalike staring at the mirror curling his lip and going “uh-huh”.

The auditions were held on the stage in the main theatre and some of the Elvises were disappointed that they weren’t asked to sing. If you’re an Elvis impersonator, the voice is everything but director Marina politely explained that she just wanted the Elvis ‘look’ combined with a little bit of acting ability.

The one who finally got the job was Leyton Sommers. He looked so like the older Elvis it was uncanny. If you were ever outside walking beside him the looks he got from members of the public were extraordinary. I once drove him after a Saturday night performance to King’s Cross to catch a train to Sheffield. He was still wearing full make-up and costume as he was performing in a late-night club there. When we stopped at traffic lights, a car full of girls on a hen night pulled up beside us. They did a double-take at what appeared to be Elvis Presley sitting in the passenger seat and went into meltdown when a grinning Leyton waved back at them and blew them a kiss. Fortunately, the lights changed and the King and I made our escape.

The rehearsals went very smoothly as I saw my play come alive for the first time under Marina’s skilful direction. Jessica Tyrwhitt designed a very cool Spanish villa set and lighting designer Jon Linstrum expertly lit it. We also had a most resourceful stage manager, Wendi Sheard, who completed our little team.

When the First Night came, and following on from the theme in the play, Rod and Joe saw another fun opportunity to get the play some attention and hired lots of celebrity lookalikes to attend the premiere. The people of Hornchurch were astonished to see limousine after limousine (it was the same one going around the block) drive up to the theatre foyer with stars like Sting, Joanna Lumley, Linda Robson, George Michael, Boy George and David Bowie alighting to flashbulbs and thrusting autograph books.

But for some reason the real Screaming Lord Sutch also came along and he loved the show. I much enjoyed chatting to him about the early days of British rock ‘n’ roll and he gave me a signed copy of his autobiography which I still have today.

It’s Now or Never did well but not well enough. Sadly it never transferred to the West End but theatre publisher Wolfgang Neruda flew over to see the Hornchurch production and snapped up the German rights. Playwright Christian Wolffer then did a great job on a translation. Jetzt oder nie is still produced in Germany and Austria to this day.

There’s even a Dutch version translated by Martine Deboosere.

In fact the play gets put on all around the world in community, amdram and repertory theatres and seems to be particularly popular in Melbourne, Australia where there have been three separate productions in recent years.

I hope they all have as much fun putting on the show as we did all those years ago.

Viva Las Vegas! Marbella!! ... Hornchurch!!!
Read more about It’s Now or Never! here.