Review

In Flame

Mark James, Julia Brannigan and Jackie Lawn
Mark James, Julia Brannigan & Jackie Lawn

I thought this a good production of a most interesting play. Like much other contemporary drama, it is structured more like a piece for television than a traditional stage play, with frequent short scenes and inter-cutting between different locations and time frames. That in itself poses problems for director and set designer, since it is easy to lose momentum during the necessary scene changes. The other challenge is one for the actors, three of whom had double roles.

The simple but effective set certainly helped meet the first challenge, and there were no really uncomfortable waits between scenes. I did think though that the arrangement for setting up the bed looked a bit cumbersome, and it resulted in a distracting noise when it was pulled out.. It would also have helped if music or a sound effect could have covered more of the scene changes.

Doubling is at least as old as Shakespeare, but the author-directed doubling found in this play and others is an example of making a virtue of the current necessity in the commercial theatre not to spend too much on actors. And in this work there is indeed some virtue in it: I thought in particular that the juxtaposition of Granny Unwin and Annie did point up both the similarities and the differences between the two characters. I couldn't however quite work out why the author had chosen to double Clara with Clootie, when it was Alex who was Clara's descendant. None of which has anything to do with the skill of those playing those particular parts on this occasion. But the cast overcame these difficulties, and I was never confused about who at that moment was who.

Julia Brannigan gave an excellent performance throughout

Good acting from all concerned, but for some reason (on the Saturday night at least), the climactic scene towards the end where a drunken Clootie takes James to see Alex, and Alex learns that Mat's wife is pregnant, didn't really work, and I can't quite put my finger on the cause. It may perhaps be a fault in the writing: the scene consists mainly of one-liners, and when the emotional climax does occur it's hard to see where on earth it has come from. To my ears the whole scene had a forced and contrived air about it, with one major exception: Mat striking Clootie to the floor was one of the most successful and realistic blows I've seen (and heard!) on the stage. Very hard to do convincingly, that - I hope Pippa Morton has recovered by now.

Jackie Lawn and Karen Janes
Jackie Lawn and Karen Janes

Pippa was good both as the not-so-simple Clara and the desperate Clootie, and the relationship between her and Karen Janes as Alex was always believable. Karen conveyed very well both the uncertainty and the inner strength of Alex. Ian Houghton's Mat was first class, but I wasn't totally convinced by his Frank - or at least by Frank's impersonation of the Great Fabrizio. Again, I suspect the author must bear some of the blame, for the 'Italian' photographer is painted with the broadest of brushes; it was a relief to hear Livvy say she didn't believe in him, for I'm sure the audience had long since come to the same conclusion.

As Livvy, Julia Brannigan gave an excellent performance throughout; she conveyed very economically the difference between her tolerance of Arthur and the fascination in which she held Frank; and the sisterly affection for Clara was convincing because it wasn't laid on with a trowel.

The difficult transitions... were handled with extraordinary skill by Jackie Lawn

The difficult transitions between Annie and Grandma Unwin were handled with extraordinary skill by Jackie Lawn, who never left us in the slightest doubt which character she was playing: an exemplary performance in both roles, but I was particularly impressed by her totally convincing representation of a victim of a stroke and Alzheimer's disease.

My greatest praise is reserved for Mark James, who made the most of the comedy inherent in Arthur. He is a natural comic actor, and there was only one occasion when I thought he was playing too hard for laughs: an out-of-character comical expression on his face when reacting to Fabrizio's hyperbole. Otherwise, he was genuinely and unforcedly funny, and unexpectedly moving in Arthur's generosity to Livvy at the end.

Jackie Lawn, Julia Brannigan and Pippa Morton
Jackie Lawn, Julia Brannigan & Pippa Morton

Having seen him in another comic role, all that came as no surprise: but it was as James that Mark really triumphed. This was a performance of the highest quality, leaving us to discover for ourselves the disturbed personality that lurked beneath that quiet and apparently ordinary surface. He trusted to the lines, and the audience's intelligence, to get the message across, and the trust paid off.

Against such unstinted praise, I suppose I ought to find something to complain about, but all I can offer are minor details. I thought the music was too obtrusive in some of the scenes -- it should have been faded down sooner. The photographs from 1908 seemed, from where I was sitting, to be colour prints; and much as I liked the camera, I thought we should have heard a click when a photograph was taken.

All in all then, an enjoyable evening's theatre, well directed and with some first class acting. And on a personal level, an author to add to my 'must look out for' list. Thanks for inviting me.


Review: John Davies
Photographs: Steve Beeston