Little Baddow Drama
21 April 2010
Mary Redman was at the Memorial Hall
It was good to have the opportunity to experience Alan Bennett's punningly titled play for the first time in a production which had a lot of good things and some that were a bit off - like the Curate's Egg.
So whether you were getting on in the ageing sense or getting on in the compatibility stakes Bennett's acute eyes and witty ears observing the foibles and intricacies of human behaviour meant there was something for everyone. "Shit has no pedigree!"
The sturdy set built by Brian Greatrex, Graham Keats and Barry Weight was a delight from the point of view of reality in an understatedly effective North London middle class kitchen of the 1970s. Barbara Newton had dressed it impeccably with bric a brac and piles of washing galore. Proof of her dedication to her task.
It was, however a set of two halves. I felt that there was no need for the two distracting door frames as they simply obscured the action but, most of all, was the regret that each of the wings sides of the kitchen was obscured wherever you sat. So one side of the audience missed the wonderfully dressed bookshelf, fireplace etc., while the other missed the equally haphazard kitchen. I realise you had to accommodate a rather large cast for such a small stage but it was a pity to waste such good workmanship (and womanship).
Lighting and Technical by Jonathan Patient and Matt Adams was good although (and this is almost certainly a directorial thingy) I felt that lighting fades at ends of scenes were often too slow and long. I did like the use of very carefully and specifically chosen incidental music by Eric Coates (I am told) with a little modern addition, which set moods and underlined action or emotions.
Stage Management was kept very busy conjuring up food and drinks and much, much more, in the safe hands of Barry Weight.
It was a great delight to see and hear Rita Ronn back on stage as mother-in-law and "Mommy Dearest" to Polly. With her wealth of acting and life experience and that beautiful voice she relished the mixed emotions and poignancy of her role as a shameless older woman. The kind that wears purple with pride and joy.
Equally welcome was Gill Peregrine's immaculate and marvellously observed cameo as the outraged, indignant Mrs Brodribb.
John Peregrine did the world weary MP George in that seen-it-all before, agitated, disillusioned, disaffected manner he does to a T. As his daffy wife Polly, and closely resembling a younger, darker-haired doppelganger of Felicity Kendal, Vicky Tropman was the perfect foil for George's worries and harassment.
All hail to Trevor Edwards for his performance as MP Brian for resisting the temptation to stereotype his gay character. This was the sort of man who is perfectly secure in his identity. This portrayal also made a good contrast to the occasional camp of Andrew Wallis's bisexual handyman. Andrew created a portrait of this perplexed young man in just a couple of weeks, so all hail to him for this achievement.
Edward Sainsbury gave us a faithful characterisation of disaffected youth, helped no doubt by his own age, but I would have appreciated more vocal projection from him.
Director Michael Gray and his Assistant Director Ken Rolf created a faithful portrait of the 1970s life but I do have to tackle the elephant in the room - prompts. It would be unfair not to mention how often John Richardson was necessary, because insecurity on lines infects the rest of the cast and infests your own characterisation, whilst interrupting the audience's necessary suspension of disbelief.
It is a tribute to the strength of Bennett's play, the director's support and the combined power of the cast that we still enjoyed getting on with the play.
Jim Hutchon saw the play later in its run for the Chelmsford Weekly News:
Director Michael Gray’s epic production of this rambling, shambling play relied largely on the more than ample supply of Alan Bennett’s words to get the story across. It involves a self-opinionated Labour MP who listens to no-one and, like a ‘literary shredder’, reduces everything in his path to a torrent of words to the frustration of his family. In the course of the play, his wife and his best friend both have an affair with an itinerant visitor, his mother-in-law survives a medical crisis, and his son tells him like it is.
John Peregrine was the MP with verbal diarrhoea, though he buckled somewhat under the sheer weight of the words, and struggled to create the subtleties of his character. His wife – played by Vicki Tropman - managed to carve out for herself a genuine 3-dimensional character and her outburst following her affair was a dramatic high spot. The best friend – a homosexual MP – played by Trevor Edwards was very convincing, and created a rounded character comfortable within himself.
Andrew Wallis played the bi-sexual lover. Initially self-effacing, he went on to provide a genuine tear-jerker of an explanation for his plight. Nice to see Rita Ronn back, as the mother-in-law. Her interventions were invariably full of drama, and she never missed a laughter-line. The son was Edward Sainsbury – excellent as a fairly laid-back teenager content to frustrate his father. He too, had an impressive moment of confrontation.
The set was a lovely mix of the bizarre and shabby chic - the results of “the liberal art of collecting others' unwanted scrap.”
This was an absorbing and very long play which needed a great deal of concentration, but was well worth the effort.