WE HAPPY FEW
Greville Theatre Club at the Barn Theatre, Little Easton
Imogen Stubbs, a much-loved actress, got a cold critical reception for her début as a playwright, despite a starry cast and a world-class director.
What a pity, since We Happy Few has much to commend it, not least its theme, which is inherently theatrical.
Unfortunately it is long, wordy, uneven and dramatically incoherent.
It tells the fascinating story of the Artemis Players – the real-life Osiris Players thinly disguised – women whose war effort is to tour Shakespeare around Britain in their “nunnery on wheels”, a 1922 Rolls. The period detail [as in Harwood's The Dresser] is evocative: hessian costumes, spirit gum and Glenn Miller. Director Jonathan Scripps and his experienced cast successfully reduce the play to manageable proportions, and produce an amusing, often touching, ensemble piece.
The powerhouse behind Artemis is the formidable Hetty Oak [Pam Hemming], secretly pining for her long-lost “darling boy” and bravely rallying her motley troops. It is she who, movingly, quotes Prospero at the end, and turns out the light as the curtain falls.
Outstanding among her rag-bag company are Carol Parradine's Flora Pelmet, the co-founder of the troupe. Her heart-rending monologue about her brother Toby is wonderfully done, though it sits awkwardly in the action. Rough-and-ready mechanic Charlie [Lynda Shelverton] has a sapphic Sarah Waters moment with Rosalind [Sonia Lindsey-Scripps], who is relentlessly quashed by her awful mother [Jan Ford] – a hard-drinking, chain-smoking faded pro – Coral Browne rather than Joan Crawford springs to mind. Ford also contributes a priceless cameo, trying out for Titus in the entertaining audition sequence. And Amanda Thompson excels as Ivy, the Brummie housemaid who's cajoled onto the Shakespearean stage.
Marcia Baldry-Bryan is Jocelyn, the stage manager, and Judy Lee is a “batty old lady” as well as a Jewish refugee in an unconvincing subplot.
The simple, versatile set is dressed with swags of colourful costume and a frieze of footwear over the lintel.
“The fewer men, the greater share of honour” … There are two chaps in the cast, though: Adam Thompson as the refugee son, and Rodney Foster working hard to good comic effect in three lesser roles.
The first night audience was positive and enthusiastic – proof perhaps that, given a good play doctor, the piece could yet be the hit that Stubbs must have been hoping for.
photograph by Adrian Hoodless