I suppose we might have the recession to thank for this, but Nottingham Playhouse appear to have started offering cheap deals, on specific midweek nights, to selected city centre workplaces – including the building which houses K’s company. Consequently, we’ve just got back from a most agreeable evening’s entertainment, priced at a mere fiver per ticket – and I’m hoping that K will be able to swing the same deal for Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle in November. (I acted in it as a teenager, and so have retained a certain sentimental attachment.)
As regards Noel Coward’s classic drawing room comedy, the attachment is no less sentimental. I grew up in the village of Blyth in North Nottinghamshire – and in a rare moment of wit, my father named our family cabin cruiser Blyth Spirit. I’d seen the 1945 movie (starring Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings) several times over – but not for at least two decades, and so my memory of the plot had dimmed to a degree that permitted the re-introduction of a useful measure of surprise.
This latest production has been staged in a traditional manner, with all period elements intact: not only the splendid, pitch-perfect set, but also the cut-glass diction and arch, mannered staginess of the cast. In the earliest scenes, some of this staginess teetered on the brink of “am dram”: most visibly in the case of the minor housemaid character, but most perilously in the case of the male lead, who stumbled over his delivery and generally took a while to get fully into his stride.
The oddest moment of the evening came with the introduction of the dinner guests, George and Violet, as the actress playing Violet bore an uncanny resemblance to… oh, you know, that woman off that thing on the telly. (I Googled her when I got home: Anne Reid, best known for her portrayal of Ken Barlow’s first wife in Coronation Street – you know, her that electrocuted herself with the hair dryer – and of Mavis Riley’s fellow refugee from Cafe BonBon on Dinner Ladies.) In fact, the resemblance was so uncanny that half the audience started muttering to each other (“Ooh, it’s her off that thing on the telly”), and there was even a brief smattering of applause.
Except that I’ve checked, and it wasn’t her off that thing on the telly at all – but a younger actress, with a markedly similar toothsome over-bite. Well, it did seem strange to have cast the best known performer in such a limited role…
Although hampered by a quiet (if faultlessly attentive) audience, whose laughter rarely rose above a polite titter, the cast did the script justice, with intelligent readings that shyed away from stock characters and easy laughs. The actress playing the ghostly Elvira pitched her performance just right, blending soignée other-worldliness with crafty mischief – and the actress playing the eccentric medium Madam Arcati was brave enough to break completely with Margaret Rutherford’s unforgettable interpretation, taking the character down a measurably different route without ever compromising her purpose or throwing away her comedic potential.
A word about the interval drinks. K and I ordered our G&Ts in advance, and were dismayed to discover that they barely tasted of gin at all. So we approached the bar: in righteous search of redress, but also perhaps unwittingly channelling the spirit of La Rutherford herself:
“Young man! We ordered gin and tonics, but we can’t taste the gin – can we, dear? We think there must have been some sort of mistake!”
“But I remember pouring your drinks myself – and there’s definitely gin in both of them.”
“Well, we definitely can’t taste it – can we dear? It’s really most terribly weak! Now, are you quite, quite sure?”
“I’m positive. But if you’d like me to pour you another…”
“Oh, yes please! How kind you are!”
“So, is that just the one measure between you, or should I…”
“No, don’t be silly: one measure each of course, there’s a good… oh yes, that’s so much better. Yes, four pounds eighty, of course…”
What have we become? Don’t feel that you have to answer that.