Vanessa and Virginia*** (Riverside Studios Hammersmith, 28 March 2013)

Posted: March 29, 2013 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Virginia Woolf has been the subject of many books, plays and films. She was a gifted writer who nurtured progressive thoughts in her own day, but it is more her inner turmoil that continues to intrigue us now. Elizabeth Wright’s play, adapted from a novel by Susan Sellers, examines Virginia’s relationship with her older sister Vanessa Bell, herself a painter of considerable note. Both were members of the influential Bloomsbury Group. It is produced by Moving Stories, a company founded in 2010 by Emma Gersch, who is the play’s director. As played by Kitty Randle, Vanessa is the more practical of the two, loving and protective of her sister, but capable of misguided jealousy. Alice Frankham’s Virginia is, at times, childishly capricious, aware and boastful of her writing talent but, at other times, stricken by depression. The sisters are bound together inextricably but they cannot connect fully with each other and they are never in complete harmony. Vanessa paints a portrait of Virginia and notices that the expression on her face is blank; she then realises that this is how she actually sees her. The events in the play span some 50 years from the sisters’ childhood to late middle age and they encompass three wars, many family bereavements, marriage, and mental illness. Vanessa has an open marriage but is tormented by her lovers’ infidelities, whilst Virginia laments that her mental health bars her from motherhood and restricts her freedom. The two characters appear in scenes together and reading correspondence to each other when they are apart. Other characters are referred to frequently but they never appear, many events are described but not enacted. This gives the advantage of ensuring that the focus stays firmly on the sisters, but it also imposes a structure which limits the play’s dramatic impact. When the sisters are together, there is chemistry that yields real tension, but when they are apart, there is no drama, just words and it stretches the considerable talents of these actors to hold the attention of the audience at these times. Kate Unwin’s set uses pastel coloured curtains as a backdrop and creates a Bohemian feel with beads, parasols and assorted trinkets overhanging the stage and the audience. Jeremy Thurlow’s piano music complements the play, being melodic but unobtrusive. This is an accomplished production of a play that provides an interesting and, for the most part, absorbing insight into two fascinating lives.

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