The story of Sweetpea Slight is a footnote to a footnote in the annals of British theatre. Even her name suggests it — a gentle, fragrant vanishing off the bottom of the page. In fact, it isn’t even her real name (which is Jane), but one given her by her formidable boss, the theatre producer Thelma Holt. She spotted her as a gangly, impressionable 18-year-old on an internship at the Theatre of Comedy in 1984, deflected her from her plan to become an actor and swept her into the role of factotum, where she remained for 20 years.
The moniker caused one moment of confusion, when it emerged that Dustin Hoffman, in London to play Shylock in Peter Hall’s production of The Merchant of Venice, produced by Holt, answered to the same. ‘It transpired that this had been his nickname since babyhood because he used to crawl up everything. So this was how Dustin and I bonded and became the two Sweetpeas.’
It’s a nice anecdote, but it reveals the problem with the book. Whether thanks to her psychology or discretion, Slight never reveals much about the people who swim around her. On the next page, she describes Hoffman as ‘very likeable and unstarry’ and adds: ‘I felt privileged to watch him at work.’ It’s not really earth-shattering.
Throughout the book certain characters — Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Helen Mirren — emerge with grace and compassion, and others — including the unnamed actor who fondled Slight’s breasts while his wife was in the outer office — make a less attractive appearance on her stage. We learn that Vanessa Redgrave chopped up a £1,500 wig in a bid to find her character and filled a bath with snakeskin shoes in an attempt to make her own costume, but we don’t understand any more about her craft than we did when we started reading.
This lack of insight is compounded by the fact that all too often Slight is literally on the sidelines, missing the real action. When Holt and Hall took productions on a ground-breaking Russian tour, Slight never got further than Gatwick airport. She may have had to deal with their problems by phone, but it’s not quite the same as hiding in a ditch to avoid the KGB and get to a forbidden party — which is what Holt was up to at the time.
Slight describes the complications of her personal life, as she struggles to overcome an innocent and unconventional upbringing in Devon and comes to terms with being gay. Yet once again her reticence is her undoing; she fades out of her own story at the end, simply leaving Holt when her disillusion with the theatre set in: ‘It seemed that almost overnight the magic grew legs and arms and ran away screaming.’
What just about holds the interest is the way Sweet’s descriptions of theatre in the 1980s and 1990s seems as ancient at just 30 years’ distance as the lost city of Atlantis. This is a world before computers and mobile phones, where a girl can spend a day photocopying contracts; where actors drink in the Green Room during a performance; where Holt can dismiss her assistant’s tentative exploration of her sexuality with the damning: ‘It’s just a phase, darling.’
The book is dedicated to Holt, and it’s clear that Slight still admires her. But the picture that emerges is equivocal. However much Slight accepts it, there’s something undoubtedly creepy about the way Holt takes over her life, giving her hand-me-down clothes to wear and even insisting they share a double bed to save money. Although her eccentricity is well documented — she once short-sightedly ate cat food for breakfast and went to a premiere having forgotten to put her dress on beneath her coat — her fabled wit seems to consist of the liberal use of the ‘c’ word.
She emerges as a sacred monster, cajoling and bullying all around her in her determination to bring the very best of international theatre to Britain, with only the consolation of neat vodka and shortbread biscuits to see her through. ‘The only way to survive in this profession without becoming a manic depressive is to exercise huge amounts of self-deception,’ Slight quotes Holt as telling her, adding ‘Thelma’s ability to delude herself was masterful and her ego robust enough to accommodate almost anything.’
It’s just a shame the book provides so few revealing examples of the genius that self-delusion produced.