Eden End – June 2011

6/10

By: J B Priestley

Directed by: Laurie Sansom

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 28th June 2011

From tonight’s performance, I would guess this is an early Priestley play which draws very strongly on Chekov, a kind of Uncle Vanya meets The Seagull in a remote Birmingham suburb. I have still to read the plentiful program notes, as theatres are too gloomy and font sizes too small for my eyesight these days. The performances all seemed fine, with one very good one, so we’re not sure if it was the rather predictable writing or something about the staging that just wasn’t right tonight. To be fair, the sudden heat wave didn’t help, as the theatre was so stuffy I found myself ‘resting my eyes’ a few times during the first half. Also, there was an unusual amount of noise from the audience, not just coughing but also a lot of creaky chair sounds, so perhaps we weren’t seeing this production at its best. Even so, I feel there’s more available from this play, and we’d both like to see it again if we get the chance.

The set was clearly for a touring production, with a circular platform holding the drawing room furniture, a set of stairs leading off from the centre back to the right, some steps front right leading to the garden, and a screen of wires hanging behind all this with a rectangular hole for the doorway. There were lots of lights hanging down just in front of this see-through screen, but apart from a bluish glow once or twice, neither of us could figure out what this was meant to represent. There was also a raised platform behind the screen, on the left, which was used for occasional tableaux, such as the opening section, and later when we saw Lilian, clearly upset, brushing her hair in her room. The furniture was period, which the dialogue told us, with a good deal of emphasis, was 1912, and one of the play’s themes was the juxtaposition of the characters’ bright hopes for the future with our knowledge of what’s just around the corner – very Chekhovian.

The house, Eden End, is the home of Dr Kirby. Apart from the two children currently under his roof – Lilian and Wilfred – there’s another daughter, Stella who ran away to be an actress some years ago. There’s also a housekeeper, Sarah, who’s the usual common sense, unconditional love for the children type of character, and visitors include Geoffrey Farrant, a former flame of Stella’s on whom Lilian is pinning her hopes, and Charles Appleby, Stella’s husband, another actor with a not-so-great career.

The opening scene was a bit dull, but it did establish who was who, that the mother had died, that Wilfred was working out in Africa, and the general political situation with the suffragettes vying for top billing with home rule for Ireland. The new-fangled telephone came in for a bit of use, and was clearly dividing opinion much as mobile phones do now.

Things really kicked off when Stella arrived back, leading to the family’s relationships and attitudes being re-examined and changed. Lilian makes the call that brings Stella’s husband down for a short stay, out of jealousy and a desire to reclaim Geoffrey for herself – never going to happen. Stella is hoping to find a safe haven back in the house she loved, amongst her family, and finally realises it’s not what she imagined all those years while she was on the road. Dr Kirby confides to her that he’s not long for the world, and with Wilfred heading back to Africa and looking forward to a promotion in say, 1916, Geoffrey leaving to make a new life for himself in Australia or similar, and Stella and her husband heading back to London, it looks like a lonely life for Lilian, with only Sarah for company once her father passes on. Bit of a downer, really.

In fact, it’s only the humour of the clash between the characters expectations of a better world in the making, and our own knowledge of the coming horrors of WWI, that keep our spirits up; that, and the lovely comedy of Daniel Betts’ performance as Charles Appleby. The scene where he and Wilfred stagger home, very late at night, trying to be quiet so as not to wake the household, and pinching Dr Kirby’s brandy, was very funny. Just before this, Charles and Wilfred did a song in front of the curtain, a music hall number about the army, I think, which set us up nicely for the next bit.

I found I was out of sympathy for a lot of the characters in this play. I was concerned that the doctor chose only to tell Stella about his illness – if she hadn’t turned up at that point, would he have told anyone? – and while Lilian’s behaviour wasn’t ideal, I felt that Stella complaining that Lilian didn’t understand the suffering she’d been through all those long years on tour, etc. etc., was all pot, kettle and black. Stella wasn’t taking into account the suffering she’d caused by her actions, particularly as she’d hardly bothered to keep in touch with the family during her absence – they hadn’t even known she was married! As often happens, the servant was about the only one I’d give tuppence for, which does make plays less engaging, I find. Still, there was enough of interest to keep me watching, and as we’re fond of Priestley, we still hope to see this one again, preferably in a more substantial production.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Holy Rosenbergs – May 2011

8/10

By: Ryan Craig

Directed by: Laurie Sansom

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 5th May 2011

The Cottesloe was in an unfamiliar arrangement for this play, an interesting cross between a standard domestic drama and an airing of viewpoints on the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Speaking as someone with no vested interest, and with a less than perfect knowledge of the recent history of this subject matter, I can only comment that as far as I could tell, the views expressed seemed to be balanced overall, with no ‘side’ coming out on top, although individual characters naturally took up strong positions to allow the debate to take place. I certainly felt I knew a bit more about the subject than when I arrived, though that wouldn’t be difficult.

The set was a living/dining room, placed diagonally across the Cottesloe space. We were on the dining table side of the room; to our right was the exit to the kitchen, and round from that were the sofas at right angles to each other, with coffee table. Opposite us was the door from the hall, and along the left side as we looked at it was a long sideboard with many family pictures in frames. The seating rose up steeply on all sides, so naturally there was nothing on the ‘walls’, and even the front row was looking down on the action.

The Rosenberg family are kosher caterers in the Edgware area. David, the father, and Lesley, the mother, have been working hard to rebuild their business after an unfortunate death at an event they catered. Although it wasn’t caused by food poisoning, the mud stuck, and now the business is on the verge of collapse. Their son, Jonny, appears to be a waster, sponging off his parents but having grand schemes to get rich quick – internet gambling is the current wheeze – and with no intention of going into the family business. Their daughter, Ruth, is an over-achiever, a high-flying lawyer who’s working on a UN inquiry into possible war crimes in Gaza. She’s come back to the family home for the funeral of the other son, Danny, who was a pilot out in Israel, and died in action there. There’s a lot of scope for discussion just among these four people, but we also get a young rabbi, Simon, who was once Ruth’s boyfriend, the chairman of the synagogue, Saul, whom David hopes will book his firm to do the catering for his (Saul’s) daughter’s wedding, and Stephen, the chairman of the inquiry that Ruth is working for, who drops by to leave her some entirely relevant papers on the evening of the funeral. A bit far-fetched, but that’s drama for you.

There was plenty of humour throughout the play, and although there were serious moments too, it never got preachy or too heavy. The antagonism felt in the Jewish community towards Ruth for her part in the UN investigation into potential war crimes leads Simon, and later Saul, to suggest that she stay away from the service, while David is suffering from unacknowledged guilt because he put pressure on Danny to stay in the danger zone, even though Danny himself wanted to come home. All these factors are woven together very skilfully, and the production was a delight to watch, with excellent performances all round.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Beyond The Horizon – May 2010

6/10

By Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Laurie Sansom

Company: Royal and Derngate Northampton

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 27th May 2010

We expect O’Neill’s work to be dark and full of suffering, and today’s piece hit the mark perfectly. It had the look and feel of an early work (haven’t read the program notes yet) with a bit more humour and less detail and complexity in the relationships, but not enough to reduce our enjoyment.

The set was nice and simple. A slightly raised square platform had torn strips of earth and floorboard across it, to represent the two locations. A tree trunk stood centre back, with stumps of branches twisted in the same direction, indicating a strong prevailing wind. At the back were silhouettes of hills in the distance, and the sky above took on different colours to suit the time and the mood. For the scenes on top of the hill, the cast usually brought on pieces of a fence which they slotted into position. For the interior scenes, they brought on a table (left of centre), a comfy chair (front right), a writing bureau (back right) and chairs and a footstool. For the final scene on the hilltop, the cast simply turned the furniture over, suggesting the final destruction of the farm, and of the remaining characters’ dreams.

The story involved two brothers, Andy and Robert, both in love with the same girl, Ruth. They’ve grown up together in a small farming community in Connecticut, with Andy being the farming type, destined to take over the farm from his father one day, and Robert being the sickly bookworm, who’s developed into a healthier young man, and who now wants to go to sea with Uncle Dick to travel and see the world, as well as learning to be ship’s officer.

The play opens the evening before Robert is due to leave. The two brothers stood on the stage, either side of the tree, as the rest of the cast brought on the fence posts and props. With the brothers staying still, the others set up the fence, then gave each brother their prop (a hoe and a book, since you ask) and after standing for a moment lining each side of the stage, the others left and the action began. This type of staging can slow things down an awful lot, but in this case it was OK, and paid one major dividend towards the end (more on that story later).

The brothers talk about many things, including their relationship, their father’s farm, how folk will miss Robert, etc. Robert is going to tell his brother something, but backs out at the last minute. As Andy heads off to wash up for dinner, Ruth arrives, wanting to know why Robert wants to leave his family and friends. His first reason is poetical and romantic. He tells her of all the times when he was young and in his wheelchair, sitting by the window and looking out at the hills, how he used to dream about the sea, and all the lands beyond. Now he was well enough to travel, he was keeping the promise he’d made to himself all those years ago. (It sounded better when he told it.) Then we get the other reason. He tells Ruth that he’s in love with her, but since she’s in love with Andy….. Ruth is practically wetting herself with excitement by this time, ‘cause she’s actually in love with Robert. She spent time with Andy because Rob was always off on his own, reading some book. Knowing this, Rob agrees to ditch his travel plans, stay on the farm and marry Ruth. (Uncle Dick will be so disappointed. I mean it, he will.)

The next scene is set in the farmhouse, after supper. Rob is taking Ruth and her mother home, while Andy, Ma and Pa Mayo, and Uncle Dick are sitting down talking. Or rather Uncle Dick is talking, about some woman asking a foolish question about where seagulls sleep. He’s an obnoxious old bugger and no mistake. It’s a miracle his crew haven’t murdered him in his sleep and thrown the body overboard. Fortunately, Kate Mayo, Ron and Andy’s mother, is a cheerful soul with a positive outlook. Pa Mayo is a decent enough bloke, not inclined to give too much whisky to Dick, presumably his brother-in-law, but otherwise fine unless his pride in the family farm is attacked. Andy’s very quiet, and goes off to check on one of the cows, which gives Kate a chance to talk about her feeling that things aren’t right. She’s already picked up from the fact that Rob and Ruth were glowing and Andy was down in the dumps that perhaps the wedding they’re all expecting sometime soon may have a different pair at the altar than previously envisaged, but her husband pooh-poohs the idea. Mind you, he does acknowledge she was right later on, after Rob comes back and announces his change of plan. Ma and Pa are delighted, Uncle Dick throws a strop, apparently based on his concern that after getting a cabin freshly painted for Rob to use, the crew will think he was planning on bringing a woman with him, but she’s dumped him. Andy congratulates Rob, having returned just as he was telling everyone his news, but it’s clear he’s been hit hard. As Dick goes on trying to persuade Rob to change his mind, it’s also clear how this is going to play out. Sure enough, Andy soon announces he’ll be going with Uncle Dick in Rob’s place. To stop his father’s protests, he throws some unkind words at him, insulting the very farm he’s loved himself up to now, and that’s too much for his father who disowns him outright. There was a fair bit of humour in this scene, particularly when Pa Mayo went to top up Uncle Dick’s whisky glass. While he’s talking, he keeps pausing just before he pours, and when he finally did pour, it hardly covered the bottom of the glass. We did enjoy the pauses, and the look Dick gave him.

The next scene is set several years ahead. There’s a child, around three years old, called Mary, and Ruth and her mother are now living in the Mayo farmhouse. Ruth looks harassed and worn out, and is increasingly cross with Mary, who isn’t keen to spend time with her bitch of a mother. Ruth’s mother may not be able to walk, but her mouth and tongue are in fine fettle, and so they should be, the amount of exercise they get. Criticising this, carping about that, complaining that no one ever takes her advice, it would try the patience of a saint, something no one would ever accuse her of being. Kate is dressed in black, and we soon get confirmation that Pa Mayo has died, about three years ago, and not long after Rob started working on the farm. As a result, the place has gone steadily downhill; Rob doesn’t have Andy’s experience or aptitude for farming, and without his father’s guidance he’s making a mess of things. This puts a lot of pressure on Ruth, while Kate seems to be content leaving everything in Rob’s incapable hands. She’s not even bothered when Ruth’s mother ‘accidentally’ lets slip that Rob is intending to mortgage the farm. And over all of this hangs the rainbow of Andy’s return. He’s sent them letters, they’re expecting him any day, and everyone seems to think it will all be fine when Andy gets back and takes over the farm. Ruth even tells Rob that she really loved Andy all along, though she didn’t realise it until too late. I did wonder if he would actually turn up at all or whether it would turn out to be their delusions talking, but the first half ends with Andy’s off-stage arrival.

The next scene is back up on the hill. Rob has taken Mary up there, and told her to play in the shade of the tree with her doll. Andy finds him there, and asks about all his experiences. Apparently, the amazing and terrifying time when they went through a monsoon slipped Andy’s mind when he came to write his letters home. (I did briefly wonder if Ruth had been hiding some of them.) Then comes the bad news – Andy plans to spend a short time on the farm, helping them get it back into shape, and making sure he hires a good man to look after things when he’s gone, but then he’s heading back to Argentina, to work in the grain business, where there are fortunes waiting for enterprising young men such as himself. He also tells Rob that he realised pretty soon that he didn’t actually love Ruth, so there needn’t be any tension between them over that.

Rob tells him not to mention this to Ruth, but after he takes Mary back to the house, Ruth arrives, all spruced up now she has a man to attract. When Andy tells her he doesn’t love her, she’s terribly hurt, and then Uncle Dick turns up to tell Andy that a boat in the harbour is actually on the point of leaving for Argentina, and everyone’s fate is sealed.

The next scene is another few years ahead. At the end of setting up the farmhouse room again, Kate, still in black, is standing by Pa Mayo, and Mary runs and joins them. They then leave the stage together, and from this I realised that both Kate and Mary had died. This was confirmed in the opening few minutes of the scene, and I felt this was a very effective use of these scene change moments. Now things have got really bad, with Ruth’s mother having to give Ruth money out of her savings to keep them afloat, but only just afloat. Rob is seriously ill, but still talking of a wonderful future. Ruth looks completely worn out, and her mother is no less bitchy than before. When Andy turns up with a doctor to check up on Rob’s condition, we learn that Rob has indeed very little time left. He tries to get Andy to promise to marry Ruth once he’s dead, but Andy holds off. Ruth and he talk about this, and Ruth explains that Rob still thinks she’s in love with Andy – this bit dragged a little. But then they find Rob has escaped from the bedroom, and they search for him, ending up back on the hilltop.

Rob is there, and this is when the furniture is turned over. The play ends with Rob dying in Andy’s arms. Andy and Ruth have a few more lines, but I don’t remember exactly what was said, although I think there was some reference back to earlier images.

Overall, it was a good play, and a good production, with strong performances all round. Despite a mobile going off towards the end of the penultimate scene, we enjoyed ourselves, and we’re only surprised to find that this is our first visit to the Cottesloe this year.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me