Review

Florence Nightingale

The following is a transcript of remarks made by Miss Florence Nightingale regarding the performance of a play portraying her own life and times.

Claudia McKelvey as Florence Nightingale"I arrived at the Company of Players delightful little theatre shortly before 7.45 only to find an orgy of sherry drinking taking place. I resisted my natural urge to lecture this unruly audience on the evils of alcohol, and, relieved to find that there was also orange juice available, decided to set an example by taking two glasses with me into the auditorium. On taking my seat I became aware that the play had already begun, though no-one else appeared to be taking the slightest notice. Had it not been for my need to maintain a low profile I would have taken the stage myself in order to focus the attentions of this inebriated assembly, but in retrospect this may well have served only to confuse them even further. Gradually they came to their senses and the cast were able to commence in earnest.

"Claudia McKelvey's performance was accomplished, despite the difficulties of having to play Florence over a span of some seventy years"

Before I make my remarks about the players, I would first like to comment upon the stage and its setting and props. As the play was itself set in a theatre, during the rehearsal process, it was not difficult to achieve the desired effect; indeed the play rather cleverly solves many of the problems that its production might present by this device. The main aim, as I suspect is frequently the case here, was not to clutter the small stage and to use props and furniture in as versatile a way as possible. This was largely well achieved and I particularly liked the use of the sticks to represent a variety of objects, though I must confess in their first manifestation as croquet mallets I thought that the heads had fallen off. The decision was taken to mime certain items, particularly papers and letters, which may have been done in order to keep such paraphernalia to a minimum and I shall refer to this again when discussing the direction.

Before the reader begins to challenge my credentials as a theatre critic I would just like to point out that in the Crimea before Balaclava there was very little to do in the long evenings, so apart from leading my team of gallant nurses I also formed the Scutari Players who became renowned in the region for our satirical sketches on military hygiene. I hope the reader is now reassured of my suitability for this task.

(Left to Right) Joanne Burnham, Jackie Lawn, Pat Lee and Brenda Newey
Joanne Burnham, Jackie Lawn,
Pat Lee and Brenda Newey

I will come now to the main players and would first like to refer to the roles of The Director, played by Chris Janes, and of course Florence (for whom I will try to maintain an air of impartiality), played by Claudia McKelvey. The Director, in charge of his troupe also acts partly as narrator, providing information (and, I may say, a good deal of opinion) about Florence and her family and companions. Mr. Janes performed this role very efficiently and achieved the necessary air of intellectual authority to convince us in his part. The script compels him to inform us that his actors' presentation, the play within the play if you like, will be an improvised affair. This was the main fault that I could find with the script in that what followed was plainly not written as improvisation, if such a thing is possible, and indeed was at times rather contrived in the way that it leapt between scenes from Florence's life. To return to Mr. Janes, the only criticism I would make of his performance is that it was rather too intense at times which slightly overpowered some of the subtler humour of the role. There were occasions when a lighter touch may have reaped a better reward.

One of the main elements of the play is the conflict between The Director and the actress playing Florence. She first appears in full Nightingale costume (and very handsome she was too, if I may say so without accusations of sexual deviancy) plainly against The Director's wishes. The subsequent battle of wills about how Florence should be played was well handled by both actors and helps provoke the audience to think about her character. Claudia McKelvey's performance was accomplished, despite the difficulties of having to play Florence over a span of some seventy years, and her life of frustration and determination was excellently portrayed.

"A major success was the battle scene"

Florence's family provided a solid backdrop against which she struggled to become a nurse, and I particularly liked the queasiness of her father, played by Keith Morbey, at anything he considered to be indelicate. The senility of her mother and the madness of her sister were also nicely played by Jackie Lawn and Joanne Burnham respectively.

I come now to the rest of the players and I can only say that if my father was shocked at my wanting to be a nurse, then it's just as well that I didn't decide on a career in the theatre. These ten portrayed, as the scenes demanded, a range of characters from a Catholic Nun to women of dubious character, played by male members of the cast in wigs (Mr. Shakespeare has much to answer for, I fear). There is obviously a range of talent in depth in this cast which bodes well for the future of COPS.

David Crook and Keith Morbey (foreground)
David Crook and
Keith Morbey (foreground)

I come finally to the direction of the play, undertaken by Paul Morton on this occasion. I spoke earlier of how the smallness of the stage dictates the economical use of props and set, and I feel that the same principal should be applied to the use of actors. There were times when the stage seemed very crowded by people just sitting about not doing a great deal. I realise that the nature of the play may have suggested this, but I felt that this could have been pared down to a minimum - there was a little too much unnecessary 'business' going on in the background which distracted at times. I also refer again to the decision to use mime. This was successfully achieved on occasions, but on others was rather sloppy - to succeed, mime must be very well practised and executed. A major success was the battle scene (though for a while I feared that my nursing skills might be required to relieve some of the more asthmatic members of the audience). This added greatly to the atmosphere of the Crimea section and particularly to the aftermath of the battle. Overall a good balance was achieved between the potentially difficult elements of the play within the play, the tensions between The Director and the lead actress, and the telling of Florence's story itself.

I believe that the best theatre both entertains and informs, and I certainly felt fulfilled on both counts by the end of the evening. As to whether the true story of my life was revealed, I will, like the play, leave that for you to decide.

These thoughts were transcribed by Mr. John Webber who did not complain once when Miss Nightingale kept him up past midnight and made him write it out again.

Photographs by Steve Beeston