Review – The Meeting, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 11th August 2018

The MeetingThe second of our three Chichester weekends this year saw Mrs Chrisparkle and me meet up with Professor and Mrs Plum for our usual fantastic lunch at the Minerva Brasserie – I can really recommend the Whiston Blanc de Blancs for a beautifully tasty sparkling English wine; it would perk up any social event! And the chicken is a real winner.

Meeting 3As usual it was to be a double-header at Chichester, and our first stop was at the Minerva for The Meeting. I think it’s fair to say that unless you are a Quaker, or are personally acquainted with a Quaker very well, you’re unlikely to know much about them. You don’t stumble across and visit their places of worship like you pop into an English Country Church in the Church of England tradition, for example. There aren’t big versions of their Meeting Houses like there are Cathedrals. And you don’t learn about their worshipping traditions, because, as far as I can make out, there aren’t any. The pinnacle of a great Quaker Meeting is to stay as silent as possible for the longest time.

Meeting 4That’s what makes Charlotte Jones’ new play, The Meeting, which has just finished its run at the Minerva theatre, so very intriguing. Set in a Sussex Quaker community in 1805, this small group of people get along by very much keeping themselves to themselves, marrying within the community, not venturing into “the town”; committed to the sanctity of human life, so they cannot fight at war; believing in equality so that even the most junior in the community would not address the most senior with any kind of reverent title. They are a Society of Friends and Friends are always equal. I learned a lot.

Meeting 8But just because this is a community of Quakers, it doesn’t mean they’re not subject to the same emotions, temptations, and desires as the rest of us. Take Rachel, for instance, living with her deaf mother Alice and her husband Adam, a stonemason; three sons she has borne him, each one stillborn or died at birth, each one named Nathaniel in the hope that they might eventually have a survivor. Biddy, on the other hand, married to James, the Elder of the community, is as fecund as the Indus Valley. I lost count how many children they had, but there’s a baby in tow at the moment and older daughter Tabitha is on the lookout for a husband.

Meeting 7One day, Rachel meets a soldier; a young man apparently invalided out of the army, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. His name? Nathaniel. Adam has only recently said he needs a young apprentice, as his strength and eye for detail are on the wane; Rachel sees it as a sign, and suggests that Nathaniel come back with her to meet Adam to see if he thinks he would be a good apprentice. Trouble is, he’s not a Quaker; but Rachel will teach him and encourage him, and, as far as she’s concerned, it’s just a little white lie for The Greater Good. But you know what might happen if an attractive older woman and a handsome young man start living under the same roof….. The gasp of shock from the audience at the final tableau before the interval told its own story!

Meeting 5The play very satisfyingly lets us in to see the secrets of this closed community, that few of us to this day know much about, so it piques our interest initially on the simple level of widening our general knowledge. But then we see the community face the age-old problem of a love-triangle, something we see in many plays and films over the course of a lifetime; and maybe indeed personally experience its pain and complications. It’s a very familiar event in a very unfamiliar setting. At times – as when Adam encouraged Nathaniel to accompany Rachel to keep her company – it reminded me of the previous play we’d seen at the Minerva, The Country Wife – although of course, much less raucous. Adam’s blissful ignorance about Nathaniel’s intentions towards Rachel and Lord Fidget’s similar encouragement to Horner to spend time with Lady Fidget are not a million miles apart.

Meeting 10It’s a fascinating play, beautifully and sensitively written, with much to say about friendship and faithfulness; forgiveness and redemption; expression and suppression. Dry stonewalls provide the backdrop to Vicki Mortimer’s simple but flexible set, a circular mosaic floor providing the setting for the meetings, where the attendees sit around on simple chairs in a circle; when the meeting is over they simply hook the backs of the chairs to a circular roof that descends and ascends to take the chairs out of the way. The costumes are uniformly puritanical grey and drab; I had to cut myself a little chuckle when Tabitha displays her “beautiful” wedding dress which is only fractionally less grey and drab than everything else the women wear. The only exception is the bright red of the soldier’s jacket which must, perforce, be hidden; let’s hope nobody finds it…

Meeting 6Charlotte Jones has written two great parts for women. Lydia Leonard is superb as Rachel; trying her best to be dutiful, bursting forth at the Quaker Meetings because she is full of ministry – or, in her case, emotion and expression which desperately needs an outlet; powerless to fight the attractive force that is the new young man under her roof. And Olivia Darnley is also brilliant as Biddy; on the one hand, the comedy gossip role, always irrepressible with good humour and accentuating the positive; on the other hand, with a past full of resentment and bitterness that she too finds it hard not to revisit.

Meeting 2Gerald Kyd plays Adam with stolid dignity and quiet assertiveness; he is a man whose emotions will always only be revealed behind closed doors. And there’s an excellent, assured performance from newcomer Laurie Davidson as Nathaniel, the seemingly decent and honest worker who turns into something of a sneak and a louse. There’s also the meaty role of Alice, powerfully performed by deaf actor Jean St Clair, eloquent in her sign language and amazingly articulate facial expressions. And there’s great support from Jim Findley as the well-meaning and responsible Elder James Rickman and Leona Allen as his enthusiastic and surprisingly self-confident daughter Tabitha.

Meeting 12We saw this on its final matinee after its three-week run, and sadly the theatre was only about 60% full, which isn’t a great audience turnout for Chichester. Those of us who were there really enjoyed it and were thoroughly carried away by its great story-telling and emotional charge. Whether or not there could be a life for this play in the future, I’m not sure. But I’m very pleased we managed to catch it, as it was a very rewarding and thought-provoking play.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – The Years Between, Royal, Northampton, 10th February

The Years BetweenThe Years Between is a rather long-forgotten play by Daphne du Maurier, that takes place during the Second World War and originally produced in 1944. Thus it’s a new experience for everyone who will see it so it feels rather like going to see a brand new play. However, the serenely beautiful set welcomes us to a world of comfortable writing desks, sky high bookcases, elegant French windows and a reassuringly crunchy gravel drive outside. All it needs is a nanny and a well behaved nine year old boy and the picture is complete. We are definitely in 1942 not 2011.

But there are many similarities between that era and our own. Admittedly we don’t have to scrap the railings for salvage, send our favourite books for pulp or knit balaclavas to help the war effort, but we do send our loved ones overseas to fight in wars and sometimes we don’t see them come home.

Diana Wentworth is at the centre of this comfortable home, with loving son, devoted nanny, reliably solid cousin at the farm, and (presumably) loving husband overseas. So when he is lost at sea she faces the crisis of what-to-do; and she chooses action. She replaces her husband as the sitting MP; she immerses herself in progressive politics, playing a part in improving education and housing; she falls in love with the cousin. Then she discovers she is not a widow after all. I’m not going to tell you any more of the plot, for obvious reasons. But what a dilemma! And it could easily happen today.

Indeed it is a really engrossing story. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle was positively intrigued at the realisation that she had absolutely no idea how Diana’s tale was going to end. It’s an excellent piece of story-telling with many relevant themes for today. Is it reasonable for someone who has been away for a long time to expect nothing has changed? How do you reconcile a couple with politically reactionary ideas and progressive ideas? Which is greater – the love for your country of the love for your partner? And do you regret the way you spent The Years Between?

Marianne Oldham At the heart of the production is Marianne Oldham’s performance as Diana. You can instantly see on her first appearance that she makes a lively juxtaposition to the careworn nanny, the anxious son and the reliably dull cousin. She is a go-getter. No nonsense, but caring with it. She wants to do the best for everyone, including herself. Marianne Oldham expresses Diana’s personality perfectly – you really feel that you get under her skin and know what she is thinking even before she has said anything. It’s a lively, entertaining but also sensitive performance.

Gerald Kyd And the perfect foil for that is Gerald Kyd as Michael, a scarred and embittered character as a result of his war experience (although you get the feeling he was always a hard man to like); by turn petulant, reasonable, selfish, kindly. He’s totally convincing and also conveys the character into the auditorium with authority and understanding.

David Verrey The supporting cast is also extremely effective; I particularly enjoyed David Verrey as Sir Ernest Foster, the cabinet minister and family friend, who strikes just the right tone of wealthy arrogant self-indulgence without ever becoming a caricature. Luke NunnThe substantial role of Robin, the son, was performed on the night we saw it by Luke Nunn and he took it with gusto – confident, amusing, clearly fully integrated with the rest of the cast as an equal.

A very satisfying evening, full of insight and provocative themes. Catch it while you can.

PS Mrs Chrisparkle and I normally have a glass of wine on arrival and another in the interval. We really appreciated the idea of the barman who suggested we buy a bottle, had a glass each beforehand, and in the interval the remainder of the bottle was waiting for us in a nice big ice bucket with two glasses. It really felt quite glamorous and celebratory!