Archive for March, 2018

Writer: Ian Grant      Director: Nadia Papachronopoulou

As with the old music hall song, many a heart is aching in After the Ball. Ian Grant’s new play is a London working class family saga spanning more than 60 years in the 20th Century, but, sadly, it buckles under the weight of its own over-ambition.

With World War I looming, young socialist William Randall (Stuart Fox) marries naive, simpering Blanche (Julia Watson) and tells her that “the poison is in the wind”. Ignoring his wife’s protests, he decides that the only antidote to the poison that he can offer is to join up, which he does, along with his friend Albert (Jack Bennett). Much is spoken about the horrors of the trenches, but William survives with only a leg wound and, while he is on leave in London for Blanche to nurse him, a baby is conceived.

After the War, William stays on in Belgium to help out with the reconstruction process and begins a torrid affair with sweet local mademoiselle, Marguerite (Elizabeth Healey), before returning home to his now hectoring wife and their daughter, Joyce (played from her teenage years by Emily Tucker). Through the London Blitz we go and then the Attlee and Wilson governments and then membership of what has since become the European Union. Joyce, a flighty girl, marries badly and later emulates her father by committing to left wing causes.

The story is told in non-linear form, leading to frequent confusion and, when characters are all played by single actors over a wide span of ages, making them consistently believable becomes virtually impossible. In Nadia Papachronopoulou’s plodding production, nothing is as moving as we feel it should be and, instead of tears, there are frequent giggles, prompted by stilted dialogue.

Meaty themes, including socialism, pacifism and women’s suffrage float over the play like clouds without ever getting properly grounded and integrated into the unfolding drama. Near the end, it seems that Grant wants to use the Randall family’s story as a metaphor for Britain’s relationship with continental Europe (or, specifically, Brussels) through to the modern era, but whatever messages he intends to convey emerge feeling as hopelessly muddled as so much else in his play. In trying too hard to say too much, the writer ends up saying nothing at all.

Performance date: 8 March 2018

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Writer: Stephen Bill      Director: Lindsay Posner

⭐⭐⭐⭐

A 2012 survey revealed that there is a much higher probability that people over 60 will die on their own birthdays than on any other day of the year. In Stephen Bill’s play, things are not looking good for Ida, whose family are gathering round to celebrate her 86th, bearing greetings cards, gifts and wishes for a still longer life.

Ida (Sandra Voe) sits in her wheelchair, swathed in blankets, her vacant expression betraying the weariness of having had indignity after indignity piled upon her through illness and misfortune. Family members talk to her as they might talk to a baby in a crib and talk of her as if she was not in the room. “I’ve had enough, I have” Ida cries out and we believe her.

Daughter Katherine has baked her a cake, daughter Margaret has made her a trifle. Katherine’s husband, Geoffrey, sits dutifully watching on; Margaret’s husband, Douglas, goes off to mow the lawn; Ida’s grandson and lodger, Michael, fusses over her, while next door neighbour, Mrs Jackson, is ready to spring in and give a helping hand on hearing the faintest knock on the wall. The arrival of the family’s black sheep, youngest daughter, Susan, kicked out by Ida 25 years earlier, sets the first cat among the pigeons.

The elephant in the room is, of course, death or. more specifically, euthanasia. Bill’s character-driven play is more light drama than dark comedy and Lindsay Posner’s production skips nimbly between its pathos and humour. The set, designed by Peter McIntosh, realises perfectly the old-fashioned cosiness of a living room that has been occupied by the same person for, perhaps, too long.

Saskia Reeves’ matronly Katherine paints a perfect picture of suppressed anguish, contrasting with the self-obsessed hypocrisy of Wendy Nottingham’s Margaret. Tim Dutton’s Douglas calmly cuts through family nonsense with common sense reasoning, while still finding time to flirt with Caroline Catz’s Susan, who readily flouts convention. Jonathan Coy’s Geoffrey makes everything worse as he tries to pour oil over troubled waters; he is as instinctively a pragmatist as is his son, Michael (Leo Bill) instinctively angry, without knowing exactly why. Completing the list of spot-on performances, Marjorie Yates’ redoubtable Mrs Jackson is a touching tribute to a sadly dying breed of devoted neighbours.

As Benjamin Franklin pointed out, death (along with taxes) is a certainty (and Bill’s well observed play explores how and why that certainty remains a taboo subject in family life. Some of the moral dilemmas raised in the play are complex and potentially dry, but the writer presents them with a human touch that makes them engaging, chiefly because he invites us to recognise its characters as exaggerated versions of members of our own families.

Performance date: 5 March 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com