By William Douglas Home
Directed by Richard Digby Day
Company: Theatre Royal Bath Productions
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Monday 16th March 2009
This was great fun. It took a little while to get going and I found it hard to make out some of the dialogue in the first scene, but it soon warmed up and the audience was certainly appreciative.
We’d probably seen this play way back, Steve certainly had, and the plot seemed familiar. A road is going to be built across some countryside close to the family seat of the Boothroyds, and the wife, Sheila, decides to kill herself at the exact moment the first sod is lifted as a protest. The bulldozers move in on Monday morning and the play starts over Saturday breakfast, served by the faithful old retainer Robertson, in the drawing room. The whole family is present for the weekend including the son and heir Hubert, who happens to be an MP, his wife Maud, their daughter Sally and her boyfriend or fiancé Simon, a journalist.
The play is set in the early 1960s, although the environmental topic makes it seem surprisingly modern. The set is a marvellous country house drawing room with tall panelled walls, tall window to our left, big carved fireplace to the right and tall wooden double doors centre back. The furniture comprises the mandatory window seat, a sofa with an accumulation of varied throws and a table behind, a piano back right, a small desk front right, a tall Chinese lacquer cabinet beside the doors and a sprinkling of chairs.
Edward Fox played General Sir William Boothroyd, Sheila’s husband and a veteran of the First World War, amongst others. He’s very deaf, and constantly brings up all sorts of stories from his younger days which are very funny. At least, we appreciated them, though of course the family had heard them all before and his timing wasn’t always helpful. Edward Fox’s performance was wonderful; he can do so much with his expression, with or without dialogue, and for me the evening really took off in the second scene with his meanderings about a chap who had thought he was a camel, or perhaps it was a dromedary, a ramble so far from the point that it led his son to destroy a china flower pot through an over-vigorous mime (it’s complicated).
The play shows us the different reactions and concerns of the family members. Maud is highly emotional and distressed at the thought of Sheila killing herself, yet at the end, as she and her husband are leaving, she thanks her hostess for a wonderful weekend and I got the impression she’s telling the truth. Her husband is at least as much concerned about his job and the family money as he is about his mother. One of the best laughs came in the last scene, when he’s dismissed the idea of attempting to talk to his mother through her locked bedroom door only to be told that his mother intends to leave all of her money to Sally so that she can marry Simon. Hubert is up those stairs like a bullet from a gun, accompanied by much laughter from us.
Sally and Simon obviously represent the younger generation, and are supportive of Granny’s right to kill herself, especially in protest at the ravaging of the countryside. Simon even helps by getting the story and a photograph of Sheila beside her freshly dug grave into the Sunday papers. Only The Observer stands aloof. The servant’s newspapers are scrutinised as well and they’ve all given the story front page status. A phone call from the Panorama production team sets up an interview for that afternoon, and the only downside is that Sheila won’t see it broadcast.
The final morning sees everyone up and about apart from Sheila, with Sir William all togged up in his finest military plumage. The bulldozers move in and everyone stands silent, mourning the death of their beloved relative, only for Sheila to walk in the door a few moments later and just carry on as normal. The others leave to go about their business, and her final admission to her husband is that she couldn’t kill herself because she loved him too much, despite a short fling with one of his junior officers many years ago.
It’s an enjoyable piece, not as dated as some, and with a light touch in dealing with the English upper classes’ eccentricities. The performances were all very good, and although I don’t expect to see it again anytime soon, definitely worth reviving.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me