Kenneth MacMillan had been an admirer of John Osborne’s work since he had seen Look Back in Anger in 1956. Years later he wrote to Osborne: “Your play made me see that everything in my world was merely window-dressing.”
When Osborne was making plans to stage his musical satire, The World of Paul Slickey, he hired MacMillan as choreographer and Hugh Casson as set designer on the advice of Jocelyn Rickards, Slickey’s costume designer. Osborne had met Rickards, his future lover, when she had assisted on the film version of Look Back in Anger. A ballet choreographer working in West End musicals was not new; Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor and Ninette de Valois had all worked in commercial theatre, and MacMillan’s contemporary, John Cranko, had achieved a smash-hit with his revue Cranks in 1955.
Slickey was intended as a savage jab at London's Fleet Street gossip columnists and at the ruling class, its lead character patently based on The Express’s William Hickey. It was a critical fiasco, not least because of Osborne’s chaotic direction (he had insisted on directing the production). Booing broke out in the stalls half-way through the show (Noel Coward and John Gielgud were among the booers) and afterwards Osborne was chased up the Charing Cross Road by irate theatre-goers. The next day’s headlines were scathing: “The biggest floperoo ever”, “Evening of general embarrassment”, “Sad day for Osborne”. The Times dismissed the piece for its ‘extraordinary dullness’. “Incredibly naive and dull," said the Evening Standard.
The major dance number was the funeral of one Lord Mortlake. For Dancing Times this was “a nightmare ritual taking the form of a rowdy alcoholic rock’n’roll orgy....the cigar-smoking clergyman wears a garment more like a tutu than a surplice.” Its critic, Eric Johns, praised “an excellent cha-cha number which captures the very beat of Fleet Street” along with ‘On Ice’, “a clever satire on smart women journalists, inspired by those absurd attitudes struck by models on the fashion pages of the glossy weeklies.”
But for Philip Hope-Wallace of The Guardian the dance routines were too long and carried “what looks like the date stamp of the Ballets Joos”, while The Observer dismissed them as “mere choreographic exercises” which failed to advance the story.
This was scarcely MacMillan’s fault; Osborne had torn the dances from their intended contexts and staged them as stand-alone set pieces. The World of Paul Slickey closed after a run of six weeks.