Love From A Stranger – March 2018

Experience: 8/10

By Frank Vosper, adapted from a short story by Agatha Christie

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Co-produced by Fiery Angel and Royal & Derngate Northampton

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th March 2018

Several surprises tonight. Firstly, this was an Agatha Christie story which I didn’t remember, so I was much more caught up in the suspense that I expected. Secondly, Lucy Bailey’s production had more tesnsion and was more gripping than I’d anticipated. We’d seen her version of Dial M For Murder some years ago, and really enjoyed the way she used the movement of the stage and a much looser set design to create a greater sense of suspense than usual, but although the set here was less balletic, with front and back sections simply sliding from side to side as needed, it didn’t get in the way of the performances, and allowed the tension to build. And finally, and even more surprising, was to find in our records that we saw a production of Love From A Stranger thirty years ago, at the Theatre Royal Brighton: safe to say, I have absolutely no recollection of that production at all.

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Basket Case – November 2011

6/10

By Nick Fisher

Directed by Robin Lefevre

Company: CFT & Royal and Derngate

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 28th November 2011

This was a first-time stage play by Nick Fisher, who wrote Manchild for the BBC, which starred Nigel Havers. Nigel is back for more as an immature divorcee who can’t quite come to terms with the loss of everything – his wife, the family home, his dog, a game of golf. It’s pretty lightweight stuff, and covered familiar ground, but the performances were all good and there’s enough fun to make this an enjoyable evening. The dying pooch would have stolen the show, as usual, but for being very still in its basket for most of the play. It did manage a slight bow during the applause – don’t know how they worked it but we all loved it anyway.

The play started with Miranda, played by Christine Kavanagh, making muffins in her deluxe country kitchen for comfort food while she waits for little Toby to breath his last. The vet, Martin (Graham Seed), arrived to care for the pooch, and from their conversation it’s clear that Toby hasn’t got long. Guy (Nigel Havers), Miranda’s ex, turns up with his friend James (David Cardy); they’d been playing golf, but the imminent death of his dog is important enough to trump the fairway, though only just from the sound of it. Given that Guy has hardly seen Toby since leaving Miranda for another woman, he’s hardly in a strong position to complain about Miranda’s choice of vet and proposed treatment of the dog, but this is comedyland, so of course he does.

It’s all a reaction to finding out that Miranda is now unavailable, as she’s got a new man in her life, one who makes her feel good as a woman (and we all know what that means!). Guy’s relationship with Sonya, the other woman, has failed (I wonder why?) and several times he tries to tell Miranda something, but she doesn’t let him. It seemed pretty clear that Guy wanted to get back with Miranda, and equally clear that he wasn’t going to succeed, but that didn’t stop him trying. His rant about Miranda conspiring with Martin to have Toby put down so she could be with her new man (Evre?) was funny at first but went on a bit too long. Fortunately the roasted espadrilles cut it short, and with Toby dying just before the end, they were briefly reunited in grief, but not for long I suspect.

The structure of the play was a series of sketch-like scenes in the kitchen between various characters, often alternating between Guy and Miranda, and Martin and James. James was completely unconcerned about the dog but did want his dinner, and the muffins were soon polished off, as were some crisps and a slice of quiche. Martin was the nerdy type, correcting James’s sweeping statements about salmon, for instance, but joining in the discussion about which snacks were entitled to be put in bowls – yes to cashews apparently, but no to peanuts unless they were honey roasted. This sort of thing was pleasant enough, but there were fewer laughs in these sections. The conversations between Guy and Miranda however had more punch; given their past relationship, that wasn’t surprising, and it’s where the occasional ‘fuck’ and ‘bugger’ were used, and used appropriately.  In fact the first half ended on a ‘fuck’ (Miranda had just exited after telling Guy her new man’s name). When Miranda revealed that she’d already sold the house, and to someone Guy knew, his reaction was very funny. Even if the new owner was one of his friends, there was a rivalry there, and Guy wasn’t happy at all.

Apart from this, there was a one-sided phone call in the opening section when Miranda was on her own – their son had discovered he’d left his wallet at home after filling his car with petrol, could Mum pay for it with her credit card over the phone? Then in the second half, to get some revenge on Miranda’s new man, Guy took his espadrilles and put them in the hottest part of the four-oven Aga. We’d already heard that you can’t smell anything from an Aga as they have a flue, so the shoes and the Le Creuset would be ruined before Miranda noticed. Neither of the other two men did anything about this – James did set the timer for forty minutes, as requested – so when Miranda finally smelt the unusual recipe, she’s pretty miffed. The men tried to stop the smoke alarm that had been set off when the dish was taken out of the oven, but it obligingly broke before they could belt it with the broom that Guy brought in – we assume that was a genuine mistake.

When Miranda left for some fresh air, having shooed James and Martin out as well, Guy is left to say farewell to little Toby, still just hanging on in his basket. After explaining the joy of a precision-made golf club, Guy took another sporting implement out of his golf bag, and when he took the cover off it turned out he had a shotgun. He loaded it and had several goes at finishing off Toby himself, but just couldn’t do it. Then he looked for a bag to put over Toby’s head, and this led to the best laugh of the evening when all he could find was a ‘bag for life’. Just as he was about to do the deed, he found Toby was finally gone. At that point Miranda returned, leading to their final embrace over the dead body, with Guy sneaking his hands on to Miranda’s buttocks – ever the opportunist.

The set was basically the kitchen, with a large island in the middle, the Aga back left, a range of fitted furniture to the right of that, and some chairs around the place. Some oak beams overhead gave the countrified feel – the play was set in Wiltshire – and the dog basket was towards the front on the left.

© 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