Review – Ladies in Lavender, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th April 2012

Ladies in LavenderNeither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I can actually remember seeing the film of Ladies in Lavender, so seeing the stage production was certainly a chance to appreciate the story for the first time. There was a big “oooh” of excitement when it was announced at the subscription season launch that this production would star Hayley Mills. I was certainly responsible for one of the “oooh”s. My only concern at the time was they would need to cast another actress of sufficient clout to keep it balanced – but I needn’t have worried as they have in the form of Belinda Lang.

And what a palpable sense of 1937 Cornish claustrophobia they really do conjure up. From the moment the curtain rises on their unravelling wool whilst listening to the wireless, meticulously planning the timing and the construct of the evening’s cocoa, you understand that, by today’s standards, and using Shirley Valentine’s phrase, these are two little lives inhabiting a very little world. But the storm that scares them into an early night also provides them with the biggest shake-up they’ve probably ever experienced – the discovery the next morning of a young man washed up on the beach. By the time he’s been rescued, seen by Dr Mead and put to bed under the protection of Aunt Elizabeth’s counterpane, their lives will be changed forever; as, for good measure, will the mysterious young Andrea’s too.

EnsembleWhat must the world have been like in 1937 – a pretty scary place, I would imagine. The local community would be highly suspicious of an eastern European, fluent in German, suddenly appearing in their community. Added to which, another foreigner, Olga, unexpectedly moves to the area, allegedly to improve her painting skills, but she wants to make contact with him. Are they spies? Was his sudden appearance on the shore somehow staged? Are the genteel Widdington sisters in any danger? Surely not, you think – but as the plot opens out there is a nagging doubt in the back of your mind. In the end you realise your concerns were unfounded – the truth was much simpler and more honest because what the story is all about is the simple attraction Ursula feels for Andrea.

At first, the sisters are competitive in his fascination for them, vying for the privilege to assist his bedside needs, childishly arguing over who saw him first. But it is Ursula rather than Janet who lingers, reads him the story of The Little Mermaid, and for whom the fascination develops into love. Of course, this love is unrequited for a gazillion reasons – mainly age difference, background, ambition – and of course the simple reason that he doesn’t actually fancy her. Dr Mead is also smitten with Olga – one gets the feeling that the late Mrs Mead wasn’t really a party animal – and his approaches are also ignored. When he’s trying gently to chat her up on the beach he points out a local folly – then goes on to describe it as not really a folly, as it was built by a local worthy to escape from his wife. That’s the metaphor for the play – this love for unsuitable, younger people may seem like folly, but in reality it’s not; it’s an escape, but it’s also likely to be unsuccessful.

The heart-warming thing about this story is that no one really criticises Ursula for her love. Why shouldn’t she love Andrea? There’s a beautiful penny-drop moment when Andrea sees Ursula crying outside in the garden – that’s when he understands the truth, and there’s no denying the strength of the emotions between either of them from that moment. The story ends as it must with Ursula, Janet and the Doctor, all listening to the wireless, together but separate, and coping with their various levels of sadness; the final hand-holding between the two sisters suggesting they will return to their previous existence, supporting each other as needed.

Hayley MillsIt’s a fantastic production of a charming play. Hayley Mills and Belinda Lang present you with an acting masterclass that’s so natural you completely suspend belief that they’re on a stage. Hayley Mills becomes a girl again as she loses herself to the mysterious Andrea, helping him learn the language by sticking English words on pieces of furniture like a game, and getting selfish and defensive when presented with the prospect of his moving on. Of course she’s demurely well behaved; serene and controlled on the exterior, but with emotions working nineteen to the dozen under the surface. She has a beautiful, expressive voice combining clarity and vulnerability in a riveting way; an infectious enthusiasm, and a look that can drive you to tears. As you would expect, it’s a superb performance.

Belinda LangKeeping her in check as much as possible, Belinda Lang as the slightly bossier sister Janet is superbly well cast. She brings out all the excellent “no nonsense” nuances of the character, but even her defences get breached as the arrival of Andrea brings to mind her lost Peter, who went to war and never came back – that whole element of the plot is so beautifully and subtly written, incidentally. I very much enjoyed her snooty reaction to the appearance of Olga on her land, and her otherwise hearty good nature brings out a lot of the humour of the story as she too gives an exceptional performance.

Carol MacreadyThere is a third member of the household, Dorcas, played by Carol Macready, who acts as cook, maid and general factotum, never missing an opportunity to puncture any pomposity or reveal a hypocrisy. Kind hearted but brusque, hers is a great comic turn, and she makes the most of the comedy opportunities that the script generously provides – we particularly loved her gentle awakening of the hungover Andrea. It was very enjoyable to see her on the Royal stage again, as she was excellent in Eden End last year.

Robert DuncanRobert Duncan’s Dr Mead has nice stiff-upper-lip bluster but convincingly allows us to get under his skin to see his inner sadness and his wish to partner up again – maybe with the lovely Olga, maybe not. His brief silent appearance on the beach when he espies Andrea apparently serenading Olga with the violin spoke volumes. A very thoughtful and affecting performance.

Robert ReesAs the mysterious Andrea, to be honest Robert Rees doesn’t have a great deal to do in the first half of the play except speak in a Polish accent and look either surprised or delighted. But as the role develops he also gives a very good performance, with his innocent pleasure of Olga’s company, his childish rage when he realises the sisters have prevented him from seeing her, and his tender reaction to his understanding of Ursula’s feelings for him.

Abigail ThawThe final member of the cast is Abigail Thaw as Olga, a cool customer with Dr Mead, an interloper in the sisters’ garden and the eventual encourager of Andrea’s talent, all of which she performs with spirited aplomb and that slight air of mystery that just makes you wonder if she has an “agenda”. Another really good performance.

The story takes place in four specific locations – the beach, the sisters’ front room, the garden and the upstairs bedroom. The Royal only has a little stage! But the set inventively uses every possible space and successfully squeezes in all the locations; and combined with simple but effective lighting it works a treat. Nitpicking, I only have two slightly critical observations: violins have to be played during the course of the play and – although I’m no expert – I’m not entirely sure Mr Rees’ arm movements with the bow could actually make the sound the violin was purporting to emit. His movement was very smooth, slow and regular even when the tune got a bit funky. Secondly, I think the very final scene would be improved if we didn’t see the figure of Andrea playing the violin in the distant corner – it detracted from what was otherwise a fully realistic presentation all the way through, and as an image it was totally eclipsed by the movingly stricken expressions on the faces of the rest of the cast in that final tableau.

But it’s an ace production of a very charming play, acted magnificently and a real spellbinder throughout. It would be a crime if it were not to be seen elsewhere after it finishes its run in Northampton and its time at the Oxford Playhouse in May. We were actually wondering if it might – just might – have something of the “End of the Rainbow” in its future. All the ingredients are there to make it a potentially huge success. Definitely recommended!

Review – Eden End, Royal, Northampton, 16th June 2011

Eden EndIt’s been a long time since I’ve seen a J B Priestley play. I think the last one was Stephen Daldry’s Inspector Calls which Mrs C and I saw in London sometime in the 1990s, but we were stuck at the back of the Garrick Theatre in London with the actors so distant they might just as well have been in Cardiff for all that I could connect with them. We saw a production of “I Have Been Here Before” at the Wycombe Swan also in the 90s with Mr Rumbold from Are You Being Served as the mysterious German Doktor. Before then it was just a production of An Inspector Calls at the Shaw Theatre in London in 1978 and a TV adaptation of Dangerous Corner around the same time.

So it was good to have some renewed exposure to this 20th century British stalwart. “Eden End” is not so often performed – perhaps because it doesn’t have the beguiling “time tricks” of Inspector Calls and Dangerous Corner. And maybe it is easy to see why it could have fallen out of favour in this modern age – what could a play from 1934 set in 1912, that doesn’t really have a very strong storyline, have that is relevant to today?

Well you just have to see it to answer that question. Laurie Sansom’s production of Eden End takes a simple tale and makes it riveting. As usual he has brought together a cast that works wonders as an ensemble. You get the feeling that in every performance the actors get a new truth out of the material, so fresh is their connection with the audience. On one level the play is about the return of an actress daughter to the family home after eight years’ absence, and the emotional ripples it creates through those left behind. On another, it reveals the reality of “the other man’s grass is always greener”; how people cope with the knowledge that life could be better somewhere else. And are they right? Very Chekhovian, Laurie Sansom refers to its similarities with “The Cherry Orchard” in the programme; there’s also a lot of “Three Sisters” in there too, as everyone has their own private Moscow.

Fantasy and reality are blurred with the brilliant set – ostensibly a traditional drawing room, but with a stylised stage curtain as the back wall and stage footlights around the edge. The fantasy suggests a glittering stage career elsewhere, but does the reality agree with that? If you saw the recent production of “Love Love Love” by Mike Bartlett, it features a daughter character who is bitter at her failed music career because no one told her when she was young that she simply wasn’t good enough. The returning actress Stella also implies that the fantasy of a brilliant acting career was a much more comforting place than the reality of being barely adequate at it.

Charlotte EmmersonStella is played by Charlotte Emmerson, fab when last seen here at the Royal as the Duchess of Malfi. It’s a beautiful performance – combining the apparent starry glamour of her profession with vulnerability in the uncertainty of whom she loves, and the worry of whether she can sustain a career. At one stage, for a little while fantasy reigns as she meets up again with long lost love Farrant; then reality returns in the form of her ex-husband. Charlotte Emmerson wonderfully portrays this movement into the light and then back into darkness.

Jonathan FirthFarrant, played by Jonathan Firth, is also a winning creation. What could easily be just another stock Edwardian stiff-upper-lip chappy with a gammy leg, becomes a real person who overcomes the reservations of the era to tell Stella how he feels. Overflowing with decency, his sense of correctness and his openness are very genuinely acted and I enjoyed his performance very much. There’s an excellent moment when he encounters Charles Appleby. His reactions are simple, but perfectly executed.

Daisy DouglasStella’s sister, Lilian, played by Daisy Douglas, comes across as deeply repressed and embittered, left behind to look after Father, sacrificing her own happiness for the perceived selfishness of her sister. There’s a great scene between the two of them where they challenge each other’s motives for how life turned out. Gripping stuff. You felt some sympathy for her – but also appreciated that she’s a bit cunning. Daisy Douglas puts over the shades of grey with the character very effectively.

Nick HendrixHer brother Wilfred – looking like how you would imagine a 24 year old Gordon Brown to look but don’t let that put you off – is played by Nick Hendrix. Dashing and ineffectual, still patronised by the family retainer Sarah, sniffing (largely metaphorically) at the skirt of a barmaid, wasting his days at home in idleness, it’s a great study of youthful underachievement. It was very rewarding to see that even in 1934 young people couldn’t get the jokes in those old Punch cartoons! His build-up routines to ringing the girlfriend were very nicely done too. According to the programme, Nick Hendrix is fresh out of RADA and this is his first professional engagement. Well we thought he was absolutely first class, and are sure he’s going to have a great career.

Daniel BettsDaniel Betts plays Charles Appleby, Stella’s estranged husband, a bit of a jack-the-lad actor, dressed like you would imagine Max Miller would if he had an office job. Cheeky and charismatic, you could see why Stella might have fallen for him – and after his night out with Wilfred, you could also see why she would have gone right off him. I have to commend Daniel Betts on his brilliant drunk act. Completely credible, nothing farcical or over the top about it; really well observed and very very funny. Mrs C and I were not entirely sure about Charles and Wilfred’s music-hall song and dance act between Acts Two and Three; they did it very well and I can see how it continues the theme of blur between fantasy and reality; but on the whole, we didn’t “get it”. I note that it’s not in the original text.

William Chubb William Chubb’s Dr Kirby was very convincing as the elderly GP father with a care for his community and a gentle cynicism about life as a whole. Sarah was played by Carol Macready and was a subtle reading of the role of the old retainer, both cantankerous and kindly; occasionally wanting to keep hold of her old niche as authoritative nurse with the children, but knowing her power is gone. When, at the end, she is left behind in a very Chekhovian moment, and she realises Stella has gone without the parcel – I confess it brought a tear to my eye.

Carol MacreadyThis is also a production really suitable for congratulating the usually unsung heroes. I’ve already mentioned the imaginative set of Sara Perks, suggesting a balance between reality and fantasy, stability and instability (the traditional room but set on a jaunty angle) and openness and secrecy (the back room that lights up to reveal Lilian desperately alone). I also thought the music by Jon Nicholls accompanied the mood perfectly, never monopolising a scene, gently suggesting more than it explained – lovely quiet sounds of an orchestra tuning up, for instance; so much more subtle than other sound effects we’ve been subjected to recently.

The sad feeling I had at the end of the play reflected how, throughout the whole play, the emotions were strong but beautifully understated. This gave the whole production a surprising additional energy. It’s a quiet gem, and I’m glad it’s going to be touring after its Northampton run. I recommend it highly.