Tom Conti in Smash hit with a magic touch

Hampstead actor Tom Conti stars in a revival of Jack Rosenthal’s 1981 play

THE late Jack Rosenthal may have been one of Britain’s top TV dramatists, but he wasn’t immune to failure.

When the writer of acclaimed dramas such as The Knowledge, London’s Burning, and Spend Spend Spend, tried to turn his 1976 Bafta Award winning TV play Bar Mitzvah Boy into a musical, it met with icy reviews, and closed after 77 performances.

With characteristic humour, the Muswell Hill dramatist turned his experience into the scathing 1981satire Smash, in which his wife Maureen Lipman starred as the put upon writer of a flop musical about GI brides.

Now it has been revived at The Menier Chocolate Factory starring Hampstead actor Tom Conti as the wily producer trying to keep a creaky show on the road, while dealing with a cocksure director, a fantasist lyricist, and a cantankerous composer – played by The West Wing’s Richard Schiff. “He’s the guy who raises the money and tries to steer the production but he’s surrounded by egomaniacs and lunatics,” says Conti.

“He is completely bullied by them and terrified of all of them and in turn he bullies the author and makes her take the blame for things. But the marvellous thing is that stuck in the middle of all that madness, Jack found ways of enjoying it.” Conti himself has only ever appeared in a well-produced, successful musical – They’re Playing Our Song – but has seen at first hand the pressured high stakes game of mounting a major show.

“What makes the fear, and also the phenomenal ambition, is that when a musical hits, it hits big and people can make enough money to last them the rest of their lives.

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“For something like The Lion King, the creator Julie Taymor would get a percentage of every seat sold. Now she’s devised another show called Spiderman and people are going to see it because it’s such a catastrophe. It becomes a tabloid event.”

Conti partly based his character on a literary agent he once knew called Eric Glass.

“There is a certain amount of Eric in this. He was a very successful play agent who was a Viennese Jew, and he would phone me with these great lines like: ‘I am going to send you a play. It was a big hit in Vienna in 1923...’ His voice is still in my head.”

Conti knew Rosenthal personally and calls him: “The most delightful man in the world.

“It was the humanity of his writing that connected with audiences. He had that magic touch.”

o Smash runs until May 8. Box office on 020-79077060. Acorn Media has just released a DVD of five Plays for Today titled Jack Rosenthal At The BBC, priced �35.99.