The Private Ear/The Public Eye – September 2013

Experience: The Private Ear 7/10

The Public Eye 8/10

By Peter Shaffer

Directed by Alistair Whatley

The Original Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 2nd September 2013

This was a double bill of two one-act plays, which were joined together by a neat little scene change at the start of the second half. We’d seen The Private Ear partnered with Black Comedy in the 1980s, so this was a new combination for us. As it turned out, I’d seen the film Follow Me! on TV many years ago, so the story of The Public Eye was familiar too, but stage is a different beast to film.

The first story concerned Bob (Steven Blakeley), a confirmed loner due to his passion for classical music and difficulty making friends. He had asked a young woman, Doreen, to come round for dinner, and to help him get over the awkward stuff like conversation, food, etc. he’d also asked a ‘friend’ from the office, Ted, to join them. Officially, Ted was just there to make the meal and leave early, but as he was obviously a lady’s man, and as Doreen turned out to be an attractive young woman, the agenda swiftly changed, leaving Bob as the gooseberry fool.

Not that the meal had anything as entertaining as gooseberry fool on the menu. I’d forgotten how limited our choices were in those days. Mushroom soup (from a can), lamb chops, marrowfat peas (tinned again) and peach slices (yes, you’ve guessed it) washed down with a bottle of Mateus Rosé would have seemed quite good then, but thankfully times have changed.

Bob’s bedsit was quite roomy. On the left was a door to the kitchen; apart from a glimpse of the cooker I have no idea what was in there. An open hatch to the bedsit was covered by a curtain, though that didn’t provide much privacy. Under the hatch was the sofa bed, extended at this time with the bed made up. To the right of the bed the wall was covered in opera posters, with a print of Botticelli’s The Birth Of Venus in the middle. To the right of the posters was the door, with a cabinet and mirror in the corner and a window far right with the gramophone below it. The dining table was front right, and there were large speakers on the left and right. LPs were piled around the place, and there were more opera posters on the wall beside the window.

Ted was the first into the room at the start and soon made himself at home. While he seemed to be Bob’s friend, there was a strong sense that he would take whatever opportunities came his way. While Steve reckoned he had only agreed to help Bob in order to chat up this woman, I was more charitable, and thought that Ted would have assumed that Bob’s potential girlfriend wouldn’t be much of a looker but when he saw how pretty she was, all bets were off.

Bob was still in his dressing-gown, having just had a bath. While Ted tried to give him some tips, employing various French phrases he’d picked up from his evening class, Bob gradually got himself ready. He was clearly nervous, and when Doreen arrived they had little to talk about. With the two of them having met at a concert, Bob had assumed she was interested in classical music, but in fact she’d just been given a ticket and didn’t want to waste it. She looked completely bored and anxious all the time she was with Bob, but when Ted made his entrance from the kitchen to announce that dinner was ready, she soon became more animated.

There were only two regular chairs for the table, so one person had to sit on a low stool; Ted arranged things so that Bob was the one on the stool. The dinner conversation was played in snatches, with short bursts of movement followed by the group freezing in different positions, which gave us a very clear idea of what was going on. Ted and Doreen had a wonderful time while Bob sat in the middle, just visible above the table, getting more and more depressed.

Eventually he finished off the rest of the bottle of wine and disappeared into the kitchen to sulk, just peeping out once round the curtain. This gave Ted and Doreen a chance to talk together, and he played her for all he was worth. She was going to write her number on Ted’s cigarette packet but was interrupted by Bob’s return, so Doreen disappeared off to the loo for a bit of privacy. Bob then had an argument with Ted, who stormed out before Doreen got back with the fag packet.

Disappointed, Doreen was going to leave, but Bob put on the love duet from Madame Butterfly, and as they listened to it Doreen and Bob began to communicate without words. He lit her cigarette, then dropped her matches, and they bumped heads when they both bent down to pick them up. She began to look at Bob with new eyes, and when she sat on the end of the bed she took her shoes off, casual like, and tucked her feet up beside her on the bed. Unfortunately Bob sat on them when he came over, causing her some pain – her scream was silent – but even so she was more attracted to him than we would have thought possible earlier on. They each tried to initiate a kiss, unsuccessfully, and after he grabbed and kissed her, she slapped him. When the music stopped she apologised, but he decided to let her go. He pretended that he was engaged, and used a picture which Ted had left to show her his ‘fiancée’. As she was leaving, he also gave her the details of how to contact Ted, so she left looking a bit happier.

Bob was left on his own, and while the rest of the play had been very funny, we felt some sadness for the man. With his hopes dashed, he went over to the record player and did a terrible thing – he scratched his record! He played the duet again, and stood listening to it in the middle of the room, with the scratch reminding him of what he’d lost – the perfect Venus. It was a sad ending, but an appropriate one, and the cast did a good job blending the humour and the emotional aspects. The audience were a little slow to pick up on the humour at the start, which was a shame, but at least we were well warmed up for the second piece.

I was expecting a different set when the curtain went up for The Public Eye. Instead it was roughly the same, although some preparation had been done in advance. Bob still stood in the middle of the room, but as he looked around, the room began to change. First off the speakers lifted up, then some piles of LPs, and soon there were removal men coming in and changing the furniture. Bob was totally bewildered and confused, and ran off briefly while the understudies and Ted rearranged the set. I don’t remember all the individual changes, but it was fun to watch, and when it was done ‘Bob’ was back in the middle of a completely different room, wearing different clothes and with a moustache which we had seen being applied. It was a lovely transformation and not only linked the two plays but got us back in the mood as well.

The new set was the reception room of an office, with two windows on the right, a bookcase instead of the posters, a sofa instead of the bed under a window into the private office of Charles Sidley, an accountant. There were books aplenty in this room, and many more visible through the inner door too when it was open. (When it was shut there was a lot of reflected glare from the lights, though that diminished later on.) A desk with two chairs stood front right, and there was a patterned rug in front of the sofa. A tall Chinese vase was the only other thing I remember.

This time Steven Blakeley was playing Julian Cristoforou, a private detective. He was waiting to speak to Charles Sidley, and after a misunderstanding as to who he was, he settled down to eat. He was meant to be giving Mr Sidely a report of his activities, but his nerves were shot after realising he hadn’t introduced himself, so food was essential to calm his nerves.

Through their discussion we learned that Charles had married a much younger woman, and her unconventional behaviour was giving him concern. He proved to be such a control freak that rather than ask his wife what was going on, he had employed an agency to track his wife and find out if she was having an affair. The detective’s report suggested an alternative view, but the husband wasn’t able to understand what he was being told. When his wife Belinda turned up, she and Charles had a row, and it was only the unusual intervention of Mr Cristoforou which created the possibility of them saving their marriage. Having sent them off on their mission, Mr Cristoforou took over the office and started sorting out Mr Sidley’s clients on the phone while the couple appeared above the back wall, sitting in a Ritz cinema. It was another good ending, and this time we got to applaud not only the three who did this play, but also the understudies and Ted.

Despite being written in the 1960s, these plays didn’t feel dated although they were clearly of their period. The sets worked really well to evoke the time and place, and the fun of watching the set change lifted the second half right from the start. Rupert Hill as Ted and Siobhan O’Kelly as Doreen and Belinda were both good, while Jasper Britton was masterly as Charles. Steve Blakeley, who played Bob and Julian Cristoforou, has been mentioned in these dispatches before, and will no doubt be mentioned again. His comic timing was impeccable, and it was lovely to see him play two diverse parts in the one evening. As this is only the second week of the tour, the production is likely to get even stronger, so it’s well worth booking if it comes anywhere near.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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