By Michael Frayn
Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Venue: Hampstead Theatre
Date: Saturday 16th May 2009
A is for Actors. This was a decent bunch.
B is for…. Bugger, I hate these alphabetical lists. (And I even had a ready-made entry for W. Witches. How often does that happen?)
This was our first visit to the Hampstead Theatre. I’d seen it under construction for a number of years when visiting a friend in the area, but it’s taken a long time for us to take that final step and actually come here to see a play. I like the look of the place, the ladies’ loos are fine, there’s lemon sorbet on offer at the interval, and the auditorium feels snug and intimate. We joined the Friends scheme on the spot. The only down side to today’s trip was that our seats were right at the back in the mezzanine, row M, and I felt I was missing a lot through being so far from the stage, but we’ll know better when we book next time. And we also managed to make our first visit on the very Saturday the Jubilee line was completely closed!
The play itself is obviously dated, although it took a while for me to suss out the period. Given that it’s set in a local newspaper cuttings library, there would have been plenty of scope for the dialogue to have firmed this up, but it wasn’t to be. Likewise, in the second half, I wasn’t aware of how much time had passed since the first. Not essential, I know, but I felt the overall vagueness as to time had leaked into the production as well, making it less funny than it could have been. I had the feeling that I’d come in part way through, as there was a good deal of laughter in the early stages for no reason I could see. Perhaps I missed a reaction, or just didn’t get the joke. I then found I was laughing at some things pretty much on my own, so the audience was definitely not as one in the early stages.
The set was also pretty dominant, which may have affected my experience. The characters seemed quite small and mostly static against a set of bright blue (verging on turquoise) filing cabinets and cupboards, there were a couple of desks, a lift door with wrap-around stairs, various office accoutrements (kettle, coat stand, etc.) and a mass of papers and folders everywhere. The mess was transformed during the interval to leave the place spick and span. Food could have been eaten off the floor, had one so wished, and assuming Lesley (the tidy one) wasn’t there to stop it. In trays were clearly marked, removed folders had to be signed for, all trace of comfortable nooks and crannies for errant journalists to lurk in had been scrupulously removed, and only Lucy’s desk, now separated, even distanced from Lesley’s and with a marvellous view of a wall, retained that air of total disarray so familiar from the first half. It didn’t stay that way for long.
The first half shows us Lesley’s first hour in her new job as assistant to Lucy, the newspaper’s librarian. Lucy’s the scatty sort, arriving late because she spent half an hour trying to decide whether to buy a fur coat in a charity shop for five pounds. She did buy it, and then spends several minutes in the office trying to decide if it’s really her. Being nice to everyone and finding information in the mess that constitutes her filing system are her two main talents, so it’s no surprise when she invites Arnold, one of the journalists, round for supper. He’s an older bloke whose wife has gone into hospital, leaving him without protection from Nora, the features editor and a predatory widow who’s desperate for company. There’s a garrulous messenger called Geoffrey, the leader writer John, who has been in an on-off relationship with Lucy, and Wally, another journalist or editor who livens the place up by constantly pretending to be about to run off with Lucy.
All of the existing group get on reasonably well, allowing for the usual amount of bitching behind each others’ backs. Lesley on the other hand is the compulsive type, who doesn’t find the current employees as charming or as entertaining as they find themselves. Without staging an actual coup she still manages to take over the library, hence the massive change in the interval. Both Steve and I noticed some signs on the filing cabinets and cupboards in the second half, but we weren’t close enough to read them (no doubt they were instructions from Lesley).
This time it’s John and Lesley who are having the relationship. She wants to buy a house, he’s showing all the usual signs of dithering. Lucy is still there, and nominally in charge, but she’s clearly finding it hard to keep going. Eventually, the news comes that the paper is to close, and with Lesley not in the room, the rest of the cast indulge in a frenzy of clippings tossing. In no time at all, the floor is awash with news cuttings and I could really relate to the fun they were all having.
Then Lesley arrives, and handles the situation remarkably well, I thought. She did point out that there was a meeting to try and keep the paper going by means of a staff buy out, so in fact the cuttings will be needed again. The play finishes with Lucy starting to get the bits of paper back into order while the others have headed off to the meeting, a slightly down beat ending.
I would say this isn’t Michael Frayn’s best work, possibly because of his background in journalism, working for the Manchester Guardian and then the Observer for a number of years. He may have liked and appreciated the characters and story, but that doesn’t necessarily translate well to the stage. I have no complaints about the acting – Penelope Beaumont was a late substitution for Annette Badland, and did a fine job – but the piece was just too slight to really engage me. Even allowing for the way we were affected by our distance from the stage, I wouldn’t consider this one worth seeing again.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me