Friday, January 20, 2012


Middle Ground at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

It's thirty years or more since we first saw the Thayer's New England lodge by the lake.
Ernest Thompson's play [predating the famous Fonda film] has aged well, adding a patina of period charm to its gentle, sentimental exploration of a marriage in its twilight years.

Norman and Ethel [she's "old", he's "ancient"] take the dust wraps off the furniture for the 48th time, with the whole summer ahead of them, remembering the neighbours, listening to the loons, with only death or dementia to look forward to. That is until their daughter Chelsea finds her dentist, with his teenage son in tow

This brand new production, directed and designed by Michael Lunney for Middle Ground, catches the style and the mood very well, helped by some lovely haunting music for piano, oboe and violin [specially written by Lynette Webster and Tessa Frith] and by the Maine summer home itself, open plan, wooden, with a nice lived-in look to it. Not so sure about the backcloth with those clich̩ scudding clouds Рa more impressionistic view of the lake might have been more effective.

The two household names playing Darby and Joan here both give touchingly believable performances. Richard Johnson plays the chronically cantankerous, slightly confused, tough old buzzard Norman to perfection, with Stephanie Powers as his long-suffering Ethel. Placid, loving, with the inner strength she needs to cope. Their final scene, where they confront mortality and close up the house for another winter, is memorably moving.

And there is strong support from a terrific cast. Elizabeth Carling is the grown-up daughter, haunted by a miserable childhood. Her new man [Tom Roberts] has a wonderful scene with Johnson, the older man determined to wrong-foot his guest. And there's a lovely character cameo from Kasper Michaels as the mailman with the ludicrous laugh, Chelsea's childhood sweetheart. The young boy, who gives Norman a new lease of life while widening his vocabulary, is convincingly done by Graeme Dalling, who played Huck at the Mercury in 2010.

It's not Chekhov; its dialogue and characters have more than a hint of the sitcom. But it is a very enjoyable piece of theatre, well served in this fine revival. The first night audience in Colchester gave it a very warm reception, which augurs well for its three-month national tour.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

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