The Company of Players (CoPs) - Hertford


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Season: 2010-2011
4th – 12th February 2011 at 8pm The Last Obit
By  Peter Tinniswood
Directed by Chris Janes

Millicent has been computerised. After a lifetime’s work in the Obituary Department of the Morning Telegraph she has been made redundant. The firm, however, has allowed her to go out in style – she can write her last obit in her own hand with her own fountain pen. But whose last obit will it be? An obscure failure? A giant of history? A personal friend? An old lover? She plunders her memories, her fantasies and her long friendship with the daft and the dead before she makes her decision.

Peter Tinniswood’s black comedy won the Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award in 1998. Production at the New End Theatre, Hampstead in May 2002


Stage Manager

This play was presented as a double bill with Some Kind of Bliss. This review covers both plays.

The heyday of the one-act play is long since past, but it would be an exaggeration to claim the form is dead, as this production at CoPs clearly showed. Leaving aside the one-act play festival, a species of event now moving slowly towards extinction, the genre still flourishes in the form of the short radio play, which is how The Last Obit originated. But a few theatres still offer an outlet for the form, including the National Theatre in its “Platform” productions, and the Trafalgar Studios, in both of which Some Kind Of Blisshas been given in live performance. It was good to see a slot being given to these two works in the CoPs season; I imagine it wasn’t a universally popular choice with your acting members, given the wealth of their talent and the relatively small number of shows they have each year in which to demonstrate it. So congratulations on a brave decision.

Some Kind Of Bliss presents a far greater challenge, especially to the actor, than The Last Obit, mainly because of the changing scenes and the frequent transitions between different characters she has to represent. Julia Ryan excelled in this respect; I loved her impersonations of the slightly too-caring Scottish husband Godfrey, the supercilious Felix who had been the real love of her life, and the cocky Cockney teenager whom she unexpectedly finds herself paying for sexual favours. As the main character Rachel however her delivery was sometimes a bit too rushed: she could on occasion have given herself a little more time to think about what she had just said or was about to say. But overall she gave us a real acting tour de force.

Without good direction the one-handed play can amount to not much more than a short story, but there was no danger of that happening in this careful production. Some part of the credit for that lay with the acting skills of Julia, but Director Chris Janes had a great deal to do with it as well, aided in particular by excellent sound effects by Jeff Davies, which brought the Thames Path between Tower Bridge and Greenwich vividly to life. That said, the sound was also responsible for the production’s greatest weakness, which was that Julia was often inaudible when the sound was at its most interesting. I’ve never before had the slightest difficulty hearing an actor at CoPs, nor did I in the second play, so part of the problem might have been that I was nearer, on the back row, to the loudspeakers than I was to Julia. But clearer diction and a bit more projection at those moments would have helped as well. Something that needs attention in preparing for Hertford Theatre Week.

The play itself, to be brutally frank, was not the best example of its kind one could have found. It’s overlong, a bit sentimental, and much weakened by giving away in the first few minutes the subsequent mugging and ice cream van hijacking And I found it all a bit far fetched, from the original decision to walk to Greenwich, through the teenage sex episode, to the final straw, the discovery of her stolen wallet and phone on the seat of the van. If you were there on the Friday night, the sound you heard behind you at that point was that of my disbelief, previously suspended by a slender thread, hitting the auditorium floor with a dull wet thud.

With the late great Peter Tinniswood, a magical realist if ever there was one, disbelief is always booted out of the window at the start. In his novel A Touch of Daniel, for example, conversations with a dead baby are presented with such cold-eyed effrontery that you must either accept them as they stand or throw the book away. It’s the same with The Last Obit: we have an Obituaries Editor who was alive well before 1916 but still working in 1998, who is allowed to submit handwritten copy, and who meets both her long-dead parents and her deceased lover at a party. Not situations to be found on this planet, but Tinniswood inhabited a universe parallel to the rest of us, and somehow everything he invents becomes utterly believable because of the reality of the character herself and the brazen confidence with which the story is told.

The alert reader will have guessed by now that I am a fan of Mr Tinniswood. I nevertheless came prepared to be disappointed, as one can be sometimes when discovering previously unknown work from a writer one admires. I needn’t have worried, for this was a wonderful play, as deeply original as all his work.

As the journalist Millicent, Carol Monzeglio had perhaps a less intimidating role than Julia Ryan’s, but single-handed acting is never easy. She gave a flawless performance that, had I been her director, I would not have wanted to change at all. It was a warmly affectionate but completely unsentimental portrait of an eccentric personality whose life had been filled with rather more sorrow than joy. It’s easy in a one-hander to fall into set speech patterns, but Carol was always interesting, always varied, and above all always truthful.

To sum up, despite my reservations about the quality of the writing in the first play, this was an entertaining and well-directed evening that deserved the enthusiastic reception it received, and justified the decision to devote a production slot to the one-act play.

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