Gertrude’s Secret – June 2008


By Benedick West

Directed by Andrew Loudon

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th June 2008

Tonight we saw Maureen, Terence, Candida, Alexander and Tina in the first half, and Eva, Desmond, Gertrude, Emily and Eric in the second half. This confused me a little, as the program had listed all these characters’ stories, and then said we would get a selection from them, potentially different each night. Not so, as it happens. And I’m not complaining.

There was no set as such. For the first half there were a few chairs and a bench, while the second half was more elaborate with a bed and a sofa.  Each story lasted about ten minutes – in some cases I was glad it wasn’t any longer, while others were much more entertaining. On the whole, we felt the women’s parts were better than the men’s, and I would put this down to the writing rather than the performances.

The first story was told by Maureen. Dressed in a vivid red coat and clutching her handbag, she started telling us about the man in her life, name of Derek (possibly). As she burbled on happily about how wonderful their relationship was, even though she had to make all the running, we gradually realised that this match made in heaven is entirely one sided. She’s a deluded stalker, and even when Derek screams “leave me alone” at her, she doesn’t take the hint. As she said, even the policeman agreed with her that she wasn’t doing anything illegal at the time. She gave us a quick flash of the outfit she was wearing under her coat – Derek was certainly in for a treat if he ever changes his mind (think black lacy underwear). At least she did regret poisoning his cat, which was very funny, even if a bit dark.

Terence sat in a pub, drinking his beer and telling us how proud he was of his son. Again, there’s a shift from light to dark, as we find out that his son is in prison for having knifed some other boys. I found this a bit dreary. It was well enough acted, but the rhythm of speech was very predictable – each section had a gentle piece followed by a bit of bellowing – and it was too soporific for me. I didn’t spot any humour to lighten the load, so I was glad when it finished.

Candida, named after the disease rather than the play, clearly had issues around sex. The recent arrival, and then departure of a foreign au pair led her to express  her dislike for messy sex with a man and speculate on the pleasures of woman on woman action. A few times the actress also showed us the au pair; she stood centre stage and was spotlit with the other lights lowered. This piece was mildly entertaining, though the best joke was probably at the start, when she was rubbing the stem of a highly suggestible plant with a view to pollinating it.

Alexander started his story at the front of the stage, and spotlit so that only head and shoulders were visible. He gave a rant along football supporter lines, then the lights came on and he became himself, dragging a drip round with him, the victim of an attack by that same rabid football hooligan. He was telling us about his experience, and gave us a another couple of glimpses of his attacker during the story. This was another section with little humour, and I found it hard to relate to these stories. There was little depth or insight to them, and without a funny line or two they couldn’t do more than pass the time.

Tina completed the first half. Pushing a pram, and wearing a bright yellow coat with matching accessories, she lets us into her world of cheap housing (condemned, even), poorly paid jobs, and a husband who’s just been sacked and is suffering from depression due to having fallen in the cement mix in a previous job. It’s funnier on the page than the stage. For all her best efforts, Ann Micklethwaite couldn’t rescue this piece. It didn’t seem to know what it was doing, and neither did I. Was it meant to be funny, sad, dark, some combination of these? The dialogue jumped around from place to place and never settled, so I just couldn’t get involved in what was a sad story with comic potential. If that had been it, I might have given the evening a 3/10 rating. Fortunately the second half proved to have a few gems to raise the standard.

To start us off, Eva treated us to a series of sexually confused malapropisms that were good fun. She was a cleaner, from a long line of cleaners, who’d cleaned for the best. As she tidied the bed and sofa, she chatted to us about her friends and so on. There were a number of good jokes, but all I can remember now is “penis colada”, a car called a “vulva”, and how uncomfortable her new “brasserie” was. We really had to pay attention with this one.

Desmond arrived on stage on a mobility buggy. He told us all about his success story, how he’d built up the best printers business in the area, and now sold it for a packet. He used a lot of printer’s jargon, which certainly made the character real, but also helped me keep my distance. His wife had left him, as he couldn’t provide anything but money, but he wasn’t downhearted. He was still full of energy and had plans for the future. He was going to open a sex shop cum strip joint, the first in the area. We were treated to some of the details – no expense spared – and then he was off to get the project started before we could pinch his idea.

Again, this was only mildly entertaining. The actor chose to go for volume jumps during this, talking quietly and conversationally for some parts, then for no apparent reason, shouting a line or two. I’ve never heard anyone talk like that in real life, at least not to such an extreme, so I’ve no idea what was intended.

Gertrude, the lady in the title, was played by Prunella Scales. Clad in dressing gown and slippers, she fretted for a while by the phone, anxious not to miss a call from her daughter. It was Gertrude’s birthday, and despite problems in their relationship, Gertrude was hoping her daughter would call.

Actually, relationship problems were nothing new to Gertrude, as she had a terrible time of it with her husband, what with the drinking, and then the beatings. The use of the past tense suggested she’d been on her own for quite a while, but it turned out she’d given herself a birthday present and stabbed the horrible man. His body was behind the sofa (she’d already made it clear she was house-proud, so she wouldn’t leave a messy body in full view), but she did remove the large carving knife she’d stuck in him, so we could see for ourselves she meant business. This was one of the better sections, and Prunella Scales added plenty of experience to make it very enjoyable.

The next story was definitely darker in tone. A young girl, Emily, appeared lying on the bed in her pyjamas, holding her teddy bear. She was in a hotel in Amsterdam, and her father had left her on her own so he could attend some business meetings. She was scared, and the TV in her room only showed weird stuff that she wasn’t interested in. She did her best to cheer herself up, and told us of a new friend she’d made via the internet. It was another girl just like her, same age, same hair colour and everything. She even lived very close to Emily’s house back in the UK. Emily had told her all about a secret place she goes to in the woods nearby, and she was going to meet her new friend there secretly once she got back. She was ever so excited about it. And she wasn’t going to tell her parents, so there. Oh dear. This was heart-rending stuff, though still in a fairly light vein, despite the subject matter.

The final scene involved Eric, a short-sighted old man wheeling a shopper around with him, and complaining bitterly to a cardboard cut out of a woman, whom he thinks is a shop assistant. I don’t remember any of the jokes now – they were pretty slight at the time – but it did raise one or two good laughs. All in all I enjoyed myself well enough, but I thought there was very little atmosphere in the theatre tonight, with relatively few seats sold, and perhaps these short pieces would do better in a smaller, more intimate space.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

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