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 Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre, 28th December 2017

The FerrymanThe third of our theatrical treats between Christmas and the New Year was this extraordinary production of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, which had transferred from the Royal Court earlier in the year for a limited period. Such is the demand for seats that the production has already been extended twice. If you go to see this hoping to discover exactly why you shouldn’t pay the ferryman until he gets Chris de Burgh to the other side, you might be sadly disappointed. What you will get, however, is a sizzling and thrilling story set in Northern Ireland in 1981 that shows how the sectarian divide affected one particular extended family.

Aunt Maggie with the kidsNine years before, Seamus Carney went missing, leaving behind his wife Caitlin and three-year-old son Oisin. Word was that he had got on a ferry to Liverpool, but had never kept in contact with his family. The wife and son moved in with Seamus’ brother Quinn and his wife Mary, who lived in a farm in County Armagh with their several children, aged relatives, and miscellaneous livestock. Whilst they never forgot their missing husband and father, they did their best to get on with their lives. Until one day, local priest Father Horrigan is mysteriously called to Derry where he discovers that a body has been found… He knows it is undeniably Seamus but why did he meet his death, and who is this mysterious Mr Muldoon who gains both fear and respect in equal measure? The play sets itself up to be a full-throttle thriller, part whodunit, part whydunit; however, when Father Horrigan returns to Armagh to break the news to the Carney family we realise the significance of the death will be much greater than first thought.

Father HorriganJez Butterworth has created a stunningly written play about a complex family environment which Sam Mendes’ production brings to life with more depth and insight than you could imagine. The huge farmhouse kitchen extends deep into the back of the Gielgud stage; the tall, steep staircase from above disgorges more family members than you could predict down to the big table that is the focal point for the family’s activities. In one corner sits an old aunt, most of the time her mind locked in a dementia-filled prison, occasionally returning to life to amuse the children with stories of old. Opposite her sits another aunt, chain-smoking, her attention captured by the radio news and the speech of Prime Minister Thatcher talking about the IRA hunger strikers. Between them the stage is filled with children of all ages, both Carneys and their cousins the Corcorans, some of them idealists, some realists, but none of them without an opinion. Neighbour Tom Kettle drops by with apples for the children, and maybe a rabbit in his deep pockets; a simple soul but with the strength of two men, as becomes apparent as the story develops. There’s always so much going on for the audience to observe that the play constantly keeps you on your toes, despite its long length of three hours and ten minutes – at least. All human life is there, as the News of the World once boasted.

Quinn and MuldoonIf you remember the Northern Ireland troubles, as they are euphemistically referred to, that period of total distrust and thinly veiled enmity which we hope and pray will never return, you’ll probably have a sense of who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. This play will challenge those preconceptions, and make you reappraise both sides of the gulf. Few of us are all good or all bad. And who knows what someone is capable of if their homeland, or their family, or anything they hold dear are directly threatened. The play has a surprise, shocking ending that I certainly could not see coming and you’ll be applauding the curtain call with your heart in your mouth.

Sarah Greene and Will HoustonThe performance we saw, gentle reader, which was the matinee on Thursday 28th December, had a drama all of its own. On arrival we were informed that there would be two cast changes, and that chain-smoking, IRA supporting Aunt Pat would be played by Mary Keegan and that Seamus’ son Oisin would be played by Conor Gormally. All well and good, and I thought Ms Keegan in particular was stonkingly effeective as the difficult old cow, picking fights with anyone who’ll stop still, insinuating scandal and discontent within the household – a memorable and powerful performance. Then came the interval, which was scheduled for fifteen minutes. After about twenty-seven minutes, the stage manager appeared and apologised for the delay but explained that Will Houston, who was playing Quinn Carney, had been taken ill and his role would be continued by Dean Ashton. I thought Mr Houston was giving a tremendous performance as Quinn, a superb portrayal of a man who has to wear many hats – father, husband, brother in law; provider, stabiliser, role model. So I was very surprised to see that he couldn’t continue. It must be very difficult to come on during a show and assume a role that the audience has already attributed to a different actor, but Mr Ashton did a grand job, although I felt his characterisation of Quinn was a little more reserved than Mr Houston’s.

Shane CorcoranThen there was what the programme describes as a “brief pause” between the second and third act, with the ushers asking us to stay in our seats as it was only about a two-minute break. After about ten minutes, the stage manager reappeared, like a valued old friend popping in to see if we were doing alright. Apologies again, but this time one of the child actors had been taken ill, so Master Thomas Harrison, who had been playing Declan Corcoran, would be replaced by Master Jack Nuttall and he was quickly getting his costume on. What on earth was going on back there? They were dropping like flies. Young Mr Nuttall was superb by the way; he had a number of quite complex – and comic – speeches early in the third act and he carried it all off brilliantly. But never before had a cast looked quite so relieved at curtain call to have actually made it to the end, nor had an audience been so grateful for the presence of the safety curtain to keep whatever lurgy was running riot away from us!

Uncle Pat in chargeThe production was notable for some other excellent performances; Sarah Greene was superb as the widowed Caitlin, enjoying what comfort she could from her close relationship with her brother in law, feisty when defending herself but dignified when she knows she cannot beat the system. Charles Dale was also excellent as Father Horrigan, desperately trying to provide as much support as he can whilst knowing that he too is beaten and could easily make things worse. Laurie Davidson gives a great performance as the progressively drunk and indiscreet Shane Corcoran, and Ivan Kaye is a disarmingly kind Tom Kettle, his seething pile of emotions never too far from the surface. There’s also a terrific performance from Stuart Graham as the quietly calculating and intimidating Muldoon. But this is a true ensemble piece, and the understanding between all the cast members, young and old, is a total joy to watch. I can’t recommend it too highly. As of today, 8th January 2018, a brand new cast is taking over until May.

P. S. When it comes to this year’s theatrical awards, this production is a shoe-in for Best Fowl in a Supporting Role.

Production photos by Johan Persson