By: Frederick Knott
Directed by: Peter Gill
Venue: Old Vic Theatre
Date: Wednesday 25th July 2007
This was good fun. It’s a well-known story, so I don’t have to explain much. The performances were excellent, getting as much detail as you could possibly get out of each character. The whole production was just about perfect, the set and costumes all contributing to the overall effect.
First, the set. The detail was amazing. For once, we actually get to see the hall and stairs outside of the living room, and the dressing room to the left where ex-Detective Rough hides. The main room is full of knick-knacks, the walls lined with pictures (apart from the obvious gap), and everything was draped with heavy fabrics. Above the walls, we could see some chimney tops and sky, which I felt was the only slight (and I emphasise slight) negative for the design. The significance of the noises in the upstairs room is lessened when there doesn’t seem to be an upstairs to have strange noises.
Rosamund Pike as Bella Manningham gave a marvellous central performance. She reminded me of Grace Kelly – she has the same luminous quality, projecting innocence and decency, and easily making us sympathise with her predicament. She was all nerves and paleness, starting up from her seat with every fleeting emotion. It was a very clear picture of a woman driven to near madness by a scheming and unsympathetic husband. Her moment of revenge was also very good, as she reprised her madness for her husband’s benefit (or rather, to his detriment). I got the impression that she’ll be all right now she’s out of his clutches.
Andrew Woodall as her husband, Jack Manningham, delivered a matching performance. He was creepy without being over the top, although he was very menacing with Elizabeth, the housekeeper. I found it uncomfortable at times to see how he was manipulating his wife to keep her unbalanced, and drive her deeper into despair. It was good to see him get his comeuppance, though I would have liked to have seen his expression as she tormented him briefly at the end (he had his back to us).
Kenneth Cranham played ex-Detective Rough, and gave the part full gravitas and authority. It seems a tricky part, carrying most of the exposition, but a seasoned performer like Kenneth wasn’t about to let us down. With the dressing room in view, we get to see him avoiding the husband when he’s changing his collar and tie, and that certainly added to the tension. He also contributed most of the humour, including skipping nimbly round the room on occasion.
What also added to the tension was the excellent reactions of Rowena Cooper as Elizabeth, the housekeeper who does her best to help Bella. Knowing that Rough is hiding in the dressing room, she waits for the outcry from Mr Manningham, and her expression changes wonderfully as she realises they might just get away with it. This is the point where Mr Manningham behaves threateningly towards her, so she has to cover quite a range in one scene. She recovers well to swear undying loyalty to the husband, but we know where her heart lies.
Sally Tatum as Nancy, the sluttish maid who intimidates Bella, was also excellent. She played a first-class guttersnipe, if that’s not too much of a contradiction, and talk about wanton! When asked to kiss the Bible, she almost manages to slip it the tongue!
The attention to detail included the business of tea-pouring, cigar lighting, and, of course, lighting the gas lamps. Nobody rushed these things, and the pace felt right for the times. In particular, Bella takes her time to pour the tea so delicately, and all these points helped to create a real sense of time and place. The claustrophobia was also evident, and when Rough is talking about the murder of Alice Barlow, I felt there was ghost story hovering in the wings. Despite the feeling of menace, however, there were also a few good laughs, including a topical one when Rough mentioned that the weather “merits a world of comment at the moment” (we’ve been having a lot of rain and flooding recently).
All these factors combined to make for a very enjoyable afternoon, and the best production I’ve seen of this play. The audience obviously agreed, and when they took their bows, we booed Mr Manningham, and cheered Rough and Bella. Great fun.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me