Pulling himself out of the rut of his middle-aged executive lifestyle, Roger Piper stumbles into a sixteen month tempestuous affair with the effervescent Angela Caxton, and is thrown into a whirlwind of romance and champagne. He finds himself increasingly neglecting his work, wife and young son in favour of trysts with the girl half his age, while his bank account is progressively sapped in order to keep is mistress in fine style. He discovers that Angie does not share his obsession with their relationship, and after multiple crises the affair ends in tragedy. The story takes place in flashback, with Roger narrating his long final love letter.
Keith Waterhouse’s play ‘Our Song’, adapted from his own novel of the same name, was well received at the Company of Players’ theatre at the end of June.
It begins with Roger Piper, a 51 year old London advertising executive, telling us the story of his sixteen month infatuation with a 17 year old ‘free-lance factotum’ in the advertising world, Angela or Angie Caxton; and we follow the affair, said to be based on the author’s own experience, in a series of flashbacks, as together they embark on an emotional switchback, including an idyllic visit to Venice after a business conference and a final set of visits to hotels up and down the country.
Angela becomes more and more dependent on him, but breaks free at the end, stifled, she says, by his obsession and his relentless jealous enquiries into other possible and younger lovers. She is killed shortly after, ‘helplessly drunk’, in a car crash on the way to a wedding in Birmingham. Drink in fact plays such a large part in their relationship that towards the end Roger estimates the amount of champagne they drank as equal to 600 bottles, or 300 magnums, or 70 odd Methuselahs, all in under a year and a half.
Ray Newton plays Roger and carries the main brunt of the play admirably. White jacketed, moving easily in the media world, he dispenses money as if it were water, and champagne as if it were mother’s milk; well alert to the comic possibilities and surprisingly successful in concealing his amours. One convention of his role as narrator is that he can speak aloud to Angie throughout, in private thoughts that no one else hears – a very effective device. His wife, Judith, (Maggie Nix,) seems not to suspect, or let herself suspect how deeply he is becoming estranged from her. Her comments on Angela however are very pointed, summing her up early on as the ‘Office Bicycle’. She is a sharp, witty character who goes on quite believably to pursue her own life in a new career as a TV presenter, not unsurprisingly with a little solace on the side.
Roger’s partner Charles Peck (Mike Newbold) watches Roger’s infatuation develop, at first with a tolerant exasperation, but soon feels impelled to warn him of what a fool he’s making of himself. This is a solid, well centred performance, especially when, towards the end, he has to dismiss Roger as a partner, when Roger’s neglect of their clients’ interests compromises the firm too deeply.
Kate Cook seems a little unhappy as Belle Parsons, the friendly tart who shares Emma’s flat, but the character is after all something of a cliché, even to being used to provide professional comfort to Roger after Angela has left him. Eric Chorley makes a striking ageing butterfly of the egregious Gunby T. Gunby, gourmet and good liver, who gives Judith a little more than a helping hand; although perhaps more esoteric vocally than the part requires; and the Maitre d’hôtel, (Mark James) sets and strikes restaurants and champagne bars with great aplomb, and is beautifully dismissive when Roger makes his final gaffe as a Hotel critic.
Angela, the object of Roger’s desire, is Emma Muir, an actress with a lovely personality and appearance. Her early scenes go well, although more uncertain as the play develops with the rows at the end more raucous than vulnerable. But she holds the relationship with Roger well, and all in all brings a considerable presence to a difficult part: the most enigmatic and problematic character in the story.
For we are never clear from the writing whether Angie loves Roger, what she means by ‘Love’; or whether she is actually having other affairs, until the end, after her death; when we find that she was, of course, loyal to him throughout. We don’t see her alone, or ever away from Roger; indeed all we know about her comes from him. He talks endlessly about her, the whole play being a long lament for her loss, but he expresses no responsibility for what she becomes, which is in many ways what he has made her. Her gratuitous death feels more a tidying up of unfinished business than an inevitable tragedy. He talks with feeling of his own loss: but she is the real loser.
Barry Lee’s production depends largely on Ray Newton’s verbal skills, tending to be a little static. The central relationship is described by Roger, for example, as very sensual, but it generates surprisingly little action; and more movement and especially body language from the players might help us bridge the missing elements in the text. The drunk scenes too could be less controlled and more dangerous.
The story is punctuated by a series of rows, which are also essentially verbal. And at times the quarrels and reconciliation’s seem to repeat each other with each new restaurant setting. And the settings are numerous: 23 scenes in 9 different locations, all handled with great ingenuity on the club’s small stage. The first sight of Angela’s flat for instance is a poignant moment, fully demonstrating Roger’s comment as, ‘The saddest room I’d ever come across.’
The haunting ‘Send in the Clowns’ is ‘Our Song’ of the title, (‘Not our song’, says Angela, sadly, ‘It’s your telephone number’). It is well used in the production, as are the other effects, and Ken Allford’s team handles the rapid changes of lighting smoothly and convincingly.
Keith Waterhouse is a well-respected dramatist, and ‘Our Song’ is an expert mixture of comedy and pathos, with some good lines. The underlying note of autobiography adds a deeper note: and although repetitive at times the whole play makes for an engaging evening in the theatre. Full of champagne, it also provides a fair amount of food for thought. A good choice for the Company’s end of season show.