The Winslow Boy – April 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Terence Rattigan

Directed by Lindsay Posner

Venue: Old Vic

Date: Wednesday 24th April 2013

There was the usual screen in front of the stage at the start of this performance, showing an extract from a legal text detailing Petition of Rights procedures. Being familiar with the play, this was quite interesting to read, though as it was only one page I soon ran out of material. When the screen rose, the set was revealed: an Edwardian drawing room with the door to the hall on the left wall, double folding doors to the dining room centre back and French windows to the garden on the right. The sofa was central, in front of the dining room doors, and had round plush green cushions. A matching chair stood on the left and a brown leather wingback chair on the right with a table beside it. The telephone was on a small table by the main door, and the remaining furniture and furnishings were all suitably appropriate, as were the costumes.

This was a very good production. Henry Goodman played Mr Winslow with more of an emphasis on the comedy than I would have wished, but he still gave a very strong central performance; I wasn’t as moved as I have been with some other productions, but I wasn’t dry-eyed either. The rest of the cast were all top-notch too, and the mock trial scene at the end of the first half went very well. This time, I fancied there was a chance for Sir Robert and Grace to have a relationship in the future. I will just mention Wendy Nottingham as the maid, Violet. It can be difficult nowadays for an audience to appreciate just how eccentric a maid Violet is, but today it was clear from the outset that she ‘just wouldn’t do’ for most respectable families with her casual attitude and complete lack of discretion. A lovely performance in a very strong ensemble.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Less Than Kind – February 2012

7/10

By Terence Rattigan

Directed by Adrian Brown

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Saturday 18th February 2012

From the program notes, this play had originally been intended as a star vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, but went through considerable changes when the Lunts became involved. Alfred Lunt led Rattigan to make so many subtle changes that it was effectively rewritten to make his part bigger and more attractive, along with other changes. The title was also changed, to Love In Idleness, and I reckon Steve and I must have seen a production of that many years ago as the plot was so familiar. This was the original version approved by the Lord Chamberlain, although there had already been some changes as the Cabinet Minister was Canadian instead of British, and certainly wasn’t unpleasant as far as we could see.

The set for the first two acts was a drawing room in a fairly posh London apartment. Given that it was a touring production, the furnishings weren’t lavish, but then there was a war on, so that fitted. The main door was centre back, there was another door off to the left (study), a window on the right, a piano on the left wall and a sofa and chairs with the necessary tables. The final act was in a small upper flat in a rundown part of London; doors off left, right and in the centre, the piano on the left wall, a small table and two chairs left of centre, and a small desk with the telephone and a typewriter front right. The ceiling was missing, and we could see the outline of a bombed building behind, and with that, the searchlights, and the smoke which invaded the living room, I was momentarily distracted by the idea that the house we were looking at had itself been bombed and was missing a chunk of the roof. Sara Crowe kept going through the mist, and we didn’t miss anything, but it was a weird moment.

The plot was based on Hamlet. Rattigan had been challenged on how he would handle the situation Hamlet finds himself in, and this play was his response. The connection isn’t just obvious, it’s frequently commented on by the characters in the play, and we enjoyed the humour of the parallels. It’s just a shame The Mousetrap hadn’t opened at this time, as it would have been even funnier if Michael had bought tickets for that instead of Death In The Family, or whatever it was. There was also a passing reference to the Lunts as dinner guests, although whether that was in the original or added for this production I don’t know.

This version of the story concentrates more on the Gertrude character, Olivia, as she negotiates her way through the return of her son from Canada, where he’d been sent to school for safety on the outbreak of war, and her relationship with a very prominent Cabinet Minister, Sir John Fletcher, who’s in charge of tank production. Her son, Michael, knows nothing of her relationship with the Cabinet Minister; his father died while he was away in Canada, and his mother has mentioned Sir John in her letters, but as a good friend, nothing more.

The play begins with Olivia arranging the guests for a dinner party. Her devious cunning is revealed early on, as she tells two reluctant invitees that the other is dying to meet them. Then we meet Sir John as he returns from work, and the arrival of her son is discussed. Sir John agrees to stay away for a day or so until she can bring Michael up to speed; Sir John favours the forthright approach, while Mummy still thinks her little boy – who may be seventeen(?), she can’t really remember – won’t be able to handle such difficult news.

And in a way, she’s right. Arriving earlier than expected, the objectionable little prig who turns up appears to have no sense of the world and sadly no sense of humour either. Michael has become indoctrinated in the new left wing attitude to everything – not communist as such, but still convinced that the order will be swept away once Herr Hitler has been beaten. Capitalism is dead, long live the revolution, that sort of thing. He’s appalled to find out that his mother’s taken up with a class enemy, a rampant capitalist, and is living the high life off her ‘immoral’ earnings. He argues with Sir John, and despite his warning about the ‘closet scene’, persuades his mother to leave Sir John and move back to respectable poverty.

So to the final scene in the flat. The relationship between mother and son is still fine, despite their lack of money, her unhappiness with their lifestyle and his insistence on reading ‘improving’ literature. We soon find out that Michael has a girlfriend, and when he heads out to spend the evening with her, Sir John turns up to try and win Olivia back. When Michael and his girlfriend arrive unexpectedly, Sir John hides in the next room while Olivia goes off for a bath, and the ensuing revelations lead to a satisfactory outcome for all concerned.

The play isn’t Rattigan’s best, but it’s still an enjoyable evening at the theatre. Naturally it’s a bit dated, and I reckon the changing attitudes between then and now may account for Sir John seeming more sympathetic to us now, banking crisis notwithstanding. The left-wing ideas which were taking hold at that time seem naïve and unrealistic today, though that may just be hindsight. The references to Hamlet were very funny, especially when Sir John had a little tirade about Michael’s behaviour, wearing a black tie and looking all mournful. He was too, wearing a big floppy black tie, which made us laugh. There was plenty of humour all round to keep us happy, and while I felt the audience didn’t respond as much as they could, the cast did a very good job and I wish them well on tour.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Browning Version – October 2011

9/10

By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 7th October 2011

This had really come on since we saw it last. All the performances were sharper, and my main difficulty with the earlier performance, back in September, had been totally rectified. I’d felt then that Anna Chancellor’s Millie wasn’t as unpleasant as she needed to be for the play to work; tonight she was as bitchy as could be, and everything fell into place. The only down side tonight was that our viewing angle cut out quite a bit of Crocker-Harris’s reactions, so I couldn’t enjoy Nicholas Farrell’s performance as much as I would have liked. Nevertheless, this was a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Browning Version – September 2011

7/10

By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 6th September 2011

I like this little play very much. It’s well constructed, and while it might not be completely idiot-proof, it can certainly rise above mediocre performances. Not that this was a problem tonight. There were a few rough edges, but given that this is very early in the run, I’m sure they’ll be up to speed very soon.

The set used the same two wooden arches as the first play, but added in the walls of Crocker-Harris’s study, and some French windows out to the garden centre back. A screen shielded the main entrance to the right, and there was a small table beside the French windows on the left. Another small table stood front left, with a large dining table centre right and a sofa centre left. There were several rugs on the floor, and the sense of a 50s style study/living room was very clear.

I liked Nicholas Farrell’s portrayal of Crocker-Harris a lot. He was very stiff and formal most of the time, but not unpleasant, and the way he crumpled when he was given the gift was very moving. I’m intrigued by the way such formality of speech can actually be used to convey the emotions underneath – it was beautifully done tonight.

Andrew Woodall was fine as the headmaster, and Mark Umbers was good as Frank Hunter, the cuckolder who turns into a friend. Liam Morton was very good as Taplow, and I certainly got the impression that the gift was a kind gesture on his part, which is what it’s meant to be. The only fly in the ointment for me was Anna Chancellor’s performance as Millie Crocker-Harris. I didn’t get the full sense of her nastiness here; it’s as if she’s afraid to make the part too unpleasant, which undercuts everyone else’s good work. Perhaps I just need time to adjust to her way of doing it, and as we’re seeing it again next month I may find it’s improved. We still enjoyed ourselves tonight anyway, so we’re looking forward to the next time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Deep Blue Sea – August 2011 (1)

10/10

By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 1st August 2011

Given the intimate nature of Rattigan’s writing, it was a surprise to see that this was being staged in the main house. I wasn’t sure how well it would work, and with a more open set than I’m used to for this play my expectations were kept nice and low. Fortunately, as this is one of my favourites, the performance overcame these conditions to tell the story superbly well. I cried buckets, and of course there were a lot of laughs too, as well as the shocked reaction to the shilling incident. Full marks all round for a great evening.

The set had the room floor clearly marked out, with rubble lying outside the walls, representing the debris still left over from the war. The back wall had the kitchen nook on the far left, main door in the centre, and bedroom door far right. There was a dining table between these doors with a sideboard against the wall behind it. In front and to the right was a chaise longue coming forward, with a chair in the centre and a large footstool to the left. The gas fire and meter were at the front of the stage. There was a coat rack in a corner beside the door, and a picture hanging on the back wall, with several others stacked in odd corners. The overall effect was drab and dingy, if spacious.

On such a large stage, the performances had to be bigger than usual, and as we were nice and close they did seem a bit over the top at first. I soon realised what was going on, and adjusted my own perceptions so as to tone down the effect, and the rest of the production went just fine. The young couple who dominate the first section are meant to be crass in any case, as a contrast to the more sympathetic and understanding characters of Mrs Elton and Mr Miller, so it all worked well.

The individual performances were all very good. Susan Tracy was lovely as Mrs Elton, all concern and sympathy, but completely unable to keep a secret under the slightest of pressure. Faye Castelow was perfect as the nosy young wife, Ann Welch, with just the right gleam of pleasure in her eye at the thought of the potential scandal she was witnessing first hand. Later on, she showed us her character’s vulnerable side, when she admits that she doesn’t like being alone at night. Joseph Drake matched her nicely with his portrayal of Philip Welch, so bossy and manly, and just as judgemental as his wife given the chance. I love the way Hester turns his own pretensions back on him when she locks him in the room, telling him it’s another chance to study human nature. Both husband and wife have a lot to learn, but I like the fact that Rattigan shows us their humanity to soften our feelings towards them.

Ewan Wardrop drew the short straw of playing Jackie Jackson, a sounding-board for Freddie with not much else to do, but he did a fine job with this small part. Anthony Calf was magnificent as Sir William Collyer. When he first arrived he appeared very uptight and angry, but I could see that this was a combination of his formal judicial manner and his great love and concern for Hester.  He never fully unbends, but even so, we get to see what Hester has left behind, the good and the not so good, including their shared friends and experiences. I was very touched by his kindness and reserved expressions of love – he didn’t want to cause Hester any pain, even though he was enormously distressed to be losing her all over again. This was an exemplary Rattigan performance, with the restraint showing us so much more than a direct expression.

John Hopkins gave us a jollier Freddie than I’ve seen before. While he must have been affected by his wartime experiences, he seemed the sort of chap who wouldn’t have been good at relationships anyway. His borrowing of the shilling was more of a temper tantrum than malicious, and I could sympathise with his difficulties to some extent. Pip Donaghy gave us a splendid Mr Miller, the ex-doctor who helps Hester find a way to face the future. He didn’t play the foreign background as strongly as some I’ve seen, but the impression of an outsider who has lost a great deal and seen much suffering was still there. And finally Amanda Root, as Hester, was the lynchpin of this excellent production. She ranged from the rowing ‘wife’ who lashes out in temper to the restrained woman who wouldn’t dream of even admitting to an emotion, let alone one strong enough to kill oneself over. The change at the end, when she says goodbye to Freddie, was noticeable, but as she had her back to us I’ll have to get the detail when we see it next time from a different angle. We’re looking forward to it.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

First Episode – July 2011

7/10

By: Terence Rattigan and Philip Heimann

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Sunday 31st July 2011

This was a rehearsed reading of a play which Rattigan wrote with a friend while at university and it was fascinating to see it, even just as a rehearsed reading. No one knows who wrote what, but there were enough of the Rattigan themes to make this definitely one of his. Although they didn’t play the homosexual relationship strongly, the accusation flung at one of the central characters, that he’s a ‘degenerate’, was a clear indicator of the original intention.

The story is mostly set in the sitting room of some student lodgings. Four young men live there – Tony who’s into theatre and is directing a play, David who’s his close friend, Bertie who’s the nerdy one, working hard and trying to follow the rules – he wants his future wife to be ‘pure’, then falls for the easiest woman in town – and Philip who’s pretty laid back and enjoys the good life as much as he can. He’s the one who has a bet on the big race with his bookie (this is set before the bookies were allowed to trade openly on the high street, so telephone calls and aliases were the order of the day), and eventually everyone else joins in; even Bertie, who’s acted all prudish about gambling, has his own bookie.

This is a side issue, though, as the main focus is the three-way relationship between Tony, David and Margot, a professional actress who’s agreed to appear in Tony’s production of Antony and Cleopatra. It’s hard to say who seduces whom; both Tony and Margot are up for it from an early stage, but it’s a temporary thing for Tony whereas she wants more. While visiting her at night to tell her to stay away from his friend, David gets caught by the university beadles, and is sent down.

There’s another romance going on, as Joan, a young woman with an easy-going nature, is also cast in Antony and Cleopatra, and starts off with a crush on Tony. As time goes on, she finds a more sympathetic companion in Bertie, and by the end of the play they announce their engagement. The horse race doesn’t turn out as expected, so David is leaving university with no degree and no money, but still with Tony’s friendship – purely platonic in this version.

The cast did an excellent job with very little preparation. They had a few items of furniture – a sofa, a chair or two and a small table at the front of the stage with the telephone. There was one scene change – to Margot’s hotel room – but the rest of the play was in the student’s room. No costumes of course, though Alex Waldmann did wear a pair of black spectacles as Bertie, which made him look the swotty type. It would be interesting to see a full production, of course, but this may be all we get. It’s still remarkably good for a first attempt.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rattigan’s Nijinsky – July 2011

6/10

By: Terence Rattigan and Nicholas Wright

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th July 2011

We attended a pre-show talk with the co-author of this piece, Nicholas Wright, which was very interesting. I often find, though, that when I haven’t seen the play, I either learn so much about the production that it spoils my enjoyment, or I don’t fully appreciate the information as I have nothing to relate it to. This one was probably the latter.

The play itself weaves together parts of a screenplay that Rattigan wrote towards the end of his life about the love affair between Nijinsky and Diaghilev – his first overt piece about homosexuality – and a framing piece by Nicholas Wright about the decision Rattigan made to withdraw the screenplay from production due to the threat of being publicly outed by Nijinsky’s widow, Romola. The action of the screenplay appears to Rattigan in his hotel room due to artistic licence and the hallucinogenic effects of a morphine concoction he was taking to dull his pain. (From the pre-show, this potion was introduced to represent Rattigan’s self-medication with the drug when he was in hospital.)

The interlacing of the two plots was well done, and allowed for some fun moments, with Rattigan the only one who could see both ‘realities’. It also allowed him to discuss the screenplay story with Diaghilev directly, and while this was a good way to tie the two stories together, I felt it made the play into too much of drama-doc. Even if Rattigan was writing more openly about a homosexual love affair, he would have done it by showing us the characters, theirs actions and words. Less repressed than usual, perhaps, but still a direct expression rather than via a narrator. This method over-simplified the Diaghilev/Nijinsky story too much for me, and I found it a bit dull as a result. Not the fault of the performers, of course, who all did a great job, often in numerous parts.

My other difficulty with the play was that ballet doesn’t really interest me as an art form, and while I’ve seen a few, and will occasionally watch documentaries on the subject, the characters just didn’t engage me as much as I would have liked. I did find the second half more interesting, as I didn’t know so much of the history after The Rites Of Spring, and I would be happy to watch the program if the screenplay was actually filmed, but overall that part didn’t impress me as Rattigan’s best work.

The framing sections worked quite well, showing us both Romola Nijinksy in her later years and Rattigan’s mother, chatting with him several years after her death – what was in that bottle? – along with Cedric Messina, the producer who wants to film the screenplay. There are a lot of parallels drawn between the two stories. Nijinsky is doubled with a young hotel porter called Donald, who clearly fancies Rattigan and ends up sharing a couch with him. Jonathan Hyde plays both Diaghilev and Cedric Messina, showing us their contrasting production styles. It’s artfully done, but didn’t give me any extra insights to the situation or characters.

What makes the production watchable are the performances, all of which are very good. Faye Castelow is particularly beguiling as the young Romola who sets out to ensnare Nijinsky, and succeeds with the help of a third party. Jonathan Hyde is also excellent as Diaghilev, and I loved Susan Tracy’s cameo as Rattigan’s mother. Malcolm Sinclair is fine as Rattigan himself, and the ensemble support is strong throughout, despite the shortage of lines for many of the small parts. I enjoyed the dancing, even though Petrouchka’s never been my favourite, and the music was very classy, of course. I’m not sure this piece does justice to the screenplay that Rattigan wrote, but it’s an interesting experiment in itself, and for all the polish of this early performance (only the second preview) it may well improve with time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me