Entertaining Angels – May 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Richard Everett

Directed by Alan Strachan

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 23rd May 2006

This was an entertaining piece of theatre, with much to recommend it. The house was packed, probably because Penelope Keith was starring, as a vicar’s widow, guilt-stricken with the belief that she had killed her husband (Benjamin Whitrow). The support cast were excellent, including Polly Adams as the widow’s sister, who announces she had a one-night stand with the deceased thirty years before and bore him a son, in Africa, where she’d gone to work as a missionary. It transpires that at the same time as she was carrying one son successfully to term, the widow had been losing her son, so there’s much family grief and resentment to cover there.

But that’s not all. The vicar having died, a new priest is being installed in the vicarage, and a woman at that (Caroline Harker). The widow’s daughter, Abigail Thaw, is a helpful-to-the-point-of-control-freak counsellor/therapist, who doesn’t seem to be grieving so much as sorting out everyone else’s lives. She contributes to the next generation’s lapses by having a one night stand with the new vicar’s husband (Michael Lumsden). Just to round it all off, the recently departed vicar is still to be seen pottering about the garden, doing those important odd jobs, and chatting to his widow about life, both before and after death.

This sounds like a fruitful opportunity for farce, but while there is a great deal of comedy and humour in this play, it has that lovely balance between humour and sadness, and even anger that is much more representative of ordinary life than more easily categorised dramas. This was even commented on in the post-show discussion by Ms Keith.

The funniest moments for me arose out of the husband’s (Lumsden’s) infatuation with the daughter (Thaw), believing their brief encounter to be more significant than she does. He tells the daughter that he has already told his wife everything, and that he wants to start a new life with her, much to the daughter’s horror. While she’s busy dealing with her difficult mother, her aunt has a heart-to-heart with the husband, and discovers that he hasn’t really told his wife anything – chickened out at the last minute. She advises him wisely to handle the changes in his life more practically than throwing himself at the first new woman that comes along, and on no account to tell his wife what’s happened, but to stay with her and work at their relationship. He agrees. At this point, the wife arrives, as does the daughter, who proceeds to launch into the most abject apology for her own behaviour, completely ignoring all pleas to leave well alone from husband and aunt, and completely mystifying the wife, but thoroughly pleasing the audience. The scene went on for some time, and I really thought the wife might twig, but no, she remained blissfully innocent.

Penelope Keith played the widow very well. She’s had years of resentment bottled up, and now she’s letting it out on everyone around her – not a pleasant character to be with. Apart from her belief that she’d killed her husband (not true), she resented losing him emotionally after the death of their son, and finding out about the other son is more than she can handle to begin with, understandably so. Of course, these details come out bit by bit during the play – it’s very hard to report them as they happened.

Benjamin Whitrow as the deceased husband has a fine time meandering through the play, giving us an insight into their relationship, and adds much of the humour, too. The daughter I have already described – very much the organiser, not happy that her mother is going batty and pretending to talk to her father all the time. The aunt is enjoyable, a little off the beaten track, as it were, through having very different experiences from the average Brit, but with a lot of common sense gained through painful experience. The new vicar comes across as almost New Labour in her perkiness and over-the-top intimacy, such as holding the widow’s hand to comfort her and show sympathy regardless of the widow’s preferences. But she obviously has a good heart, and while I would have liked her to have been more savvy about her husband, there wouldn’t be drama if characters didn’t have flaws. Her husband is beautifully portrayed, as a man who has reached forty, started to re-evaluate his life, and fallen for the first female he’s met who’s different from his wife, thinking she’s perfect and will make him happy.

The set design was interesting, with walls blending into sky and foliage, presumably suggesting the blurring of the boundaries between this world and the afterlife. Unfortunately, some slack had crept into the backdrop, so we were treated to some peculiar-looking swag-shadows this evening – a not-to-be-repeated event, I’m sure, certainly not if the designer has his way. Along the front of the stage was a stream, with real water, and the garden area had real grass. To create different scenes, a swathe of willow branches was lowered towards the front of the stage to distance the stream from the garden, making it more secluded. I thought this worked really well.

The less good things I found were the lack of sympathy I felt for the central character, some theological comments which went over my head, and a sense that the play has more to offer. See below. But despite these few cavils, this was a very enjoyable evening with a splendid cast.

         Post-show discussion: All the cast stayed behind (this was a short play, finishing at about 9:30 p.m.), along with the writer and set designer. Points raised included the difficulty of projecting to such a large auditorium, especially with the audience on three sides, and the need to keep turning round to include various sections of it; it’s better to have a writer who’s also been an actor because he understands their needs; the possible changes that might have to be made if the show were to transfer to a proscenium arch theatre; possible rewriting anyway now the author has seen such a good cast bring the play to life and given him new ideas; many actors’ terror at having to do post-show discussions, although some, such as Abigail Thaw actually enjoy it; the importance of audience vocal feedback, letting the actors know the audience is with them; how differently audiences react to significant revelations in the play, especially the widow’s announcement that she’s killed her husband – the response varies, but again shows the audience is taking it all in. The discussion ended with much appreciation of the cast from the audience members who had stayed behind.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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