A Marvellous Year For Plums – May 2012

7/10

By Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th May 2012

This is the second play in the main house this year, and I’m already a little worried that this anniversary celebration of Chichester’s 50 years is recalling the blander offerings of the past rather than the much stronger work of recent years. This new play was enjoyable enough but has some problems, and while it was always likely to appeal to the traditional Chichester audience profile, it’s doubtful whether it would make its mark elsewhere. The cast did their best, of course, and looked relieved to receive a warm response at the end, but the play needs work to realise its potential.

Stories about the Suez crisis are semi-topical in this day and age, but even with such relatively recent history a lot of exposition is going to be necessary, and this can tend to slow things down, as well as leading to some clunky dialogue at times. The set was broad brush, allowing for quick-ish changes of scene, and created a hazy effect of memories surfacing and time being fluid. With the appearance of Eden senior at various times, this style pointed to a focus on one man’s life, the central character in the British involvement in Suez, but the rest of the play didn’t support this take. With the introduction of Hugh Gaitskill, and his affair with the wife of Ian Fleming, author of the Bond stories, the play became about the levels of deceit that were commonplace amongst the political elite at that time, and could have been suggesting that the prevalence of such loose morals was a factor in the decisions that were made. Unfortunately, the play never got round to that sort of suggestion; while I’m all for writers letting the audience make up its own mind about these things, this was so neutral as to be negligent. I was more inclined to see the possibility of Eden’s health problems as a contributing factor, although again that wasn’t given any real consideration.

As a retelling of the story of the events leading up to the Suez crisis it worked well enough, given that Harold MacMillan was noticeably absent, but there was very little sense of tension – we do know the result, after all – and the story was only partially told, with big jumps in the timeline and only fleeting references to the political fallout. With a similar offering from the National in recent years – Howard Brenton’s Never So Good, which told Harold MacMillan’s story – this play seemed very unsure of itself, and would benefit from being tightened up and given a clear focus and through story.

Having said all that, it was still enjoyable enough, despite the structural issues and some awkward staging. The set had a strip revolve which helped with the scene changes, but as the floor was slanted, I did find it funny, and even alarming at first, to see tables and chairs sliding off the stage as if by gravity. The dancing that was used to cover the scene changes was also a distraction; it seemed to signal the time changes, but as the dancers could also be characters, I wasn’t sure if we were meant to get something else out of it. Also, this device was used to much better effect in Never So Good; using it here in such a similar piece was unfortunate – looked like copying, although perhaps it was intended as a homage?

The dates were projected onto the back wall, which was a montage of country estate and London posh, and which was used to show a lot of video footage during the evening, including some large scale pictures of speeches made by Eden and Gaitskill on stage. I’m sorry to report that I spent more time checking the pictures against the reality to see if the video was live or recorded than I did listening to the speeches, which were the usual political blather. (I got the impression they were pre-recorded.)

The play began with some music, and as the chandelier was lit and raised up, there were some dancers gliding across the floor – why? I‘ve no idea what we were meant to take from this. I did wonder if the chandelier had been left hanging low down and raised up so that we would actually notice it, but as it came into play later on that was unlikely. After this puzzling opening, Eden came on and stood near the front of the stage, speaking some words in Arabic, while the script appeared on the back wall. He said the lines in English afterwards – ‘the moving finger writes…’. Unfortunately, in the gloom I saw Eden’s face as being very like Hitler’s, and with the guttural sounds of Arabic being not unlike German, I wondered for a brief moment or two if this was what we were being shown – a speech from Hitler which had been a strong influence on Eden’s life. I suspect that similarity wasn’t intended, and perhaps I’m the only one who saw it this way, but even so this opening was muddled and low-key; not a good start.

The first proper scene was between Eden and Nutting, whose position was never entirely clear but who seemed to be involved with the Foreign Office in an economic role. He was the main sounding board for Eden’s rants about Nasser, and later resigned over the deceit involved in the Suez operation. He also put the case for giving the Arabs, including Egypt, more support rather than less through this transition period. Eden stuck to the old Imperialistic attitudes, lumbering, dinosaur-like, to his doom. Nutting, a married man, was also having an affair, although what that had to do with anything wasn’t clear. He was missing for a large chunk of the second half – resigning your post will do that to a character – and only turned up again for the final flourish, a meeting with Selwyn Lloyd, in which we learn that Nutting has written a book about Suez. It was in this conversation that Selwyn Lloyd also delivered the long-awaited punchline ‘a marvellous year for plums’. Having a good title is all very well, but leaving it to the last minute to show us the connection simply weakened the effect. I would have preferred to use the old standard of starting the play with this meeting, going into flashback, and rounding the play off with the title line – it’s hackneyed, true, but it works. Of course, the interior Eden would have to be shelved in this version, but that’s a price worth paying in my view, as those parts didn’t work for me anyway.

Selwyn Lloyd was involved a lot throughout the play, not just at the end, and helped to hold the story together. A nice performance from David Yelland, this character gave us the legal and political insights of the situation, including the possibility that the Americans would have ‘winked’ at the British and French continuing their attack on Egypt, if it had produced the desired result of removing Nasser from power. History is full of such examples of the importance of deniability.

Hugh Gaitskill and Ann Fleming were ably played by Nicholas le Provost and Imogen Stubbs, although neither was stretched by these fairly standard roles, and I’m not sure what Gaitskill’s involvement was meant to achieve. He did introduce a letter published in the Times which neatly expressed the despair felt by many people who had to watch their country’s involvement in an illegal ‘police operation’, but as the letter was read by the writer herself (up on the balcony), I’m still not clear about his role in the play. Ann Fleming was a close friend of Clarissa Eden, and her involvement was necessary to show us the personal view, while Ian Fleming’s contributions were always enjoyable – a good performance by Simon Dutton – but Gaitskill’s inclusion suggests too much research on the part of the writer, and too much concern to cover all the angles.

Clarissa Eden was played by Abigail Cruttenden, and was all that could be wished for – beautiful, charming, intelligent, and a strong support for her husband. Antony Andrew’s Eden was good, though I would have preferred his vocal delivery to be less accurate, as Eden’s strangulated tones made it hard to hear his lines a lot of the time. He certainly captured the sense of a man out of his time, and struggling to make old attitudes work in a new world. His breakdown on stage was uncomfortable to watch, as it should be, and although he made some terrible choices, it was hard not to like the man, and feel that he was indeed honourable at his core.

Martin Hutson did a good job as Anthony Nutting, and I was particularly impressed as the last time we’d seen him was as the uber-villain Prince John in The Heart of Robin Hood in Stratford. Ian Fleming commented on the importance of a good villain in his stories – how true. The supporting cast all did fine work, the dancers especially, and the costumes were all lovely and suitably period. Daniel Easton did a nice turn as John Prescott, a steward on a cruise ship who was studying history and wanted to go into politics; despite seeming unlikely, I gather that John Prescott was indeed a ship’s steward and did indeed meet Eden when he took his post-Suez cruise in 1957.

I enjoyed this performance well enough; my dissatisfaction is largely based on the sense that there’s a good play in there somewhere, and if they can rework the material enough to get it out, then I would be delighted to watch the result. As it is, this is not one to see again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

My Darling Clemmie – April 2010

8/10

By Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Gareth Armstrong

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 30th April 2010

This was a lovely one-woman show which took us on a brisk trip through the life of Clementine Churchill, and particularly her marriage to Winston. In fact, the play opened with her first sight of the man, and ended with a memory of that moment. I sniffled a great deal, though as we were in the front row, I tried to do it as unobtrusively as possible.

The set was very simple. A rug in the middle of the stage, a writing table and chair to the left, and another chair to the right. The lighting didn’t change much, so it was entirely up to the actress to keep us involved for over an hour and a half. And this she did. Rohan McCullough gave an excellent performance as Clemmie, very upright, delicate and refined. I never knew the woman, of course, but this portrayal seemed in keeping with the little I know of her.

And of course we have the letters. Hers to him, his to her, and a few others thrown in along the way to round out the story of this famous couple, as seen from the wife’s point of view. It was funny, entertaining and moving, and a very enjoyable evening in all ways.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Last Cigarette – April 2009

6/10

By Simon Gray and Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Richard Eyre

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 6th April 2009

I was torn between giving this production a 6 or 7/10 rating. The acting was very good, there was a lot of humour and some moving moments, yet overall I found it not as interesting as other pieces on the same subject; the John Diamond/Victoria Coren A Lump In My Throat, for example.

The set was a three-way split, with three identical desks, chairs, pile of books and pair of slippers carefully arranged along radiating patches of carpet. From what I could see (and from a surreptitious feel of the texture) the carpet was a basic mid-blue, with ray-shaped bands which had been speckled with gray paint, resembling cigarette ash. There was a large screen at the back, and although there was a selection of images to illustrate the story being told, the main image was that of a man, presumably Simon Gray himself. Unfortunately, and I don’t know if this was intentional or not, the image was blurred, with two identical pictures being projected slightly out of sync. It was mildly distracting, as I tried to figure it out at first, and then, once I’d realised what it was, I occasionally looked at it again when the offerings on stage weren’t so engrossing.

The three actors, Felicity Kendal, Jasper Britton and Nicholas le Provost, played three versions of the author. Like some gargantuan inner conversation, they took us on a reminiscence through Simon Gray’s life and some of the circumstances around his experience with cancer. The advantage of having three actors doing this was that the ‘spare’ ones could play the parts of the other people in each scene, and the down side to that was that I wasn’t always clear when they were back playing the author again. Felicity Kendal was the hardest for this; although she was very good as a man, so to speak, she naturally played all the woman’s parts required, and I sometimes found I lost track of who she was. But this is a minor quibble; the play was still very entertaining, and we enjoyed ourselves more than we’d expected to.

One more point. Having read one or two reviews beforehand, and at least one from a critic who’d known the man himself, I was glad that we hadn’t known him at all as we didn’t expect accurate impersonation, just a tribute in play form to his life and work. Which we got, and were well satisfied.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Pack Of Lies – February 2009

6/10

By Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Christopher Morahan

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 16th February 2009

We saw this back in 1983 (Theatre Royal, Brighton) when Judi Dench and Michael Williams played the married couple at the heart of this story. I don’t recall much of the performances (I’m sure they were excellent) but in any case I’m sure I’d still have enjoyed this production just as much.

Jenny Seagrove and Simon Shepherd play Barbara and Bob Jackson, neighbours to Peter and Helen Kroger, good friends and Russian spies, both at the same time. The play takes us from the good times, through the initial request for help from the British Secret Service and the gradual realisation of the true nature of their ‘good friends’, to the tragic ending with the death of Barbara. The strain of having to keep their secret, not just from their friends but also from their daughter, Julie, proved too much for a woman of nervous disposition.

The set was much as I remember. It’s the interior of the ground floor of a semi-detached house in a London suburb, Ruislip in this case, showing us the sitting room, entrance hall and stairs, and kitchen. All very 1950s. The costumes all matched the time period perfectly, with Barbara and Bob being conservative, even dowdy, and Helen being flamboyant and glamorous. The paintings on the sitting room wall which are meant to be by Barbara are of decent quality for an amateur (I’ve seen a lot worse in The Deep Blue Sea), and seeing the old Bakelite telephone reminded me of the days when a phone call was an event, and people formed communities with those they lived close to, rather than logging on to the global village. How things change.

It’s an interesting play which never drags, for all the relative lack of action and amount of information to get across. Due to Roy Marsden’s indisposition, the part of  the Secret Service chap, Stewart, was played by David Morley Hale, who made good use of his character’s notebook to remind himself of the lines. His delivery was a bit flat as result – he’ll be better once he’s off the book – but it’s a fairly dry part anyway, so I don’t think we lost too much from the cast change, and I suspect most of the audience were just grateful he was there.

I liked the way the casual snobbery of the time was thrown in now and again. Describing one neighbouring couple as British, and then qualifying it by commenting that the wife came from Wales, was typically spot-on. The solo speeches to the audience were also good, as they filled in a lot of the information that the structure just wouldn’t accommodate otherwise. In all, a very good evening out.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me