As a vicar’s wife, Grace has spent a lifetime on her best behaviour. Now, following the death of her husband Bardolph, she is enjoying the new-found freedom to do and say exactly as she pleases. But the return of her eccentric missionary sister Ruth, together with some disturbing revelations from the past, forces Grace to confront the truth of her marriage.
With sharp-edged comedy and probing wit, this absorbing play asks whether God can be trusted to do anything right at all, or is the whole thing a divine exercise in trial and error?
Invited to see this play on the first Saturday of the run I found a painfully thin audience, a sorry sight in any theatre and especially this one; I sincerely hope the company had a better turnout in the second week. Incidentally, I wrote drama reviews for the Mercury for nigh on fifteen years and can recall only one really awful CoPs production during that time, so I looked forward to my visit.
Coming in, an orthodox proscenium stage layout gave Chris Janes the chance to create a visually effective exterior set where the stage floor was an important part of the scenesetting. I admired the attention to detail, such as the rotting base of the vicarage door (which may have been a subtle comment in itself) and the ingenious transformation from garden to bower, and the tautness of the cyc cloth – though providing a neutral border would have hidden its top strapping.
Director Barry Lee was fortunate in having a technically competent group of actors, so no allowances needed be made for any lack of experience: I only remember dear old Ray Newton in action in the past but the other four actors were new to me. With this relatively small cast Barry was able in rehearsal to concentrate with a great deal of success on developing and polishing the individual characterisation and overall tempo of the whole. But sorry, I’m afraid I did not like the play.
I have no knowledge of the author Richard Everett and of anything else he may have written for the stage but it struck me that this was possibly an apprentice piece where fundamental (and rather trite) ideas about morality and religion and ethics and family relationships were all bundled together and given to characters to pronounce upon (fair enough) and so would have been acceptable had there been underlying truth to the situations and their development revealing the past. If the author decides to pursue those dramatic ideas in his other work he should look to almost any Bernard Shaw play to discover how it should be done.
Were we, the audience, expected to see this as a Home Counties slice of life, played with that theatrical ‘reality’ which heightens the humanity and our belief in the people portrayed? If so, then what were we to make of the sudden arrival of the robust shades of an ex-vicar in what was deemed to be a ‘natural’ situation? Complete suspension of disbelief was needed from us to believe anyone or anything from hereon in. Noel Coward got away with a ghost or two as a central element in Blithe Spirit but Everett is no Coward and this play was presumably not intended as a farce; it wasn’t performed as one, or even a comedy. Any laugh-lines superficially inserted by the playwright generally failed to have any effect on the audience – I counted fewer than ten genuine out-loud reactions to them. Did the director gloss them over – or did the cast fail to time them properly? I drove home seriously wondering with my wife what on earth prompted the company to opt for this one.
To the actors then. The pivotal character is of course ‘Grace’. Maggie Box’s performance in the role was admirable. It required an enormous amount of stamina, which without a doubt she had, on stage almost throughout and working hard; a difficult part successfully done. What she was given by the script is another matter. Were we expected to empathise with this ill-mannered woman who was so aggressively rude and bitchy, even to a comparative stranger, let alone her family? Maggie pointed these lines strongly and consistently, and because of this I found her character dislikeable and felt little sympathy at all for her in her widowhood. She was pleasant only to her imaginary dead husband in her imaginary conversations in her imaginary flashbacks, only to return to her poor daughter to berate her for not getting the tea. Not a nice person – it was too late to come over all sweetness and light by the last scene – there was a pseudohappy ending for you! My wife had a certain sympathy for her however, and on a facetious note I suspect Maggie was pleased to have a comfy cardigan with pockets, perpetually to use them to hide her hands; it saved having to think what to do with them when standing around.
Her daughter ‘Sarah’ was played by Karen Greely and I did have a lot of feeling for her, having to flesh out a person given only two dimensions in the script. Playing her as a soft-centred wimp was perhaps not the best option, especially when given several vulgar terms in the dialogue such as ‘rat-assed’ to speak. Some of my best friends are psychotherapists, and every one of them is odd, so perhaps Karen could have introduced a note of world-weary cynicism in her portrayal. Sarah’s past emotional problems in her life were dismissed in a few lines – very unfair on the actor. And as a clinical professional she would in practice have had her mother committed ages ago.
I did feel that Davina Foster, as the ‘Celia Imry look-alike’ missionary, played arguably the most credible part, in spite of the storyline, if only because she remained totally consistent on stage, when involved and, as important, when observing the action. However, that she would wait thirty years to reveal her back story was ridiculous – back to the suspension of disbelief again.
We have in our village a young married female vicar and I found some similarity with her in Laura Leigh’s practical interpretation of ‘Jo’ – though I don’t think our vicar would have been quite so open to new parishioners about past encounters with French polishers. Jo turned up to provide another angle to the religion ‘theme’ and as a mouthpiece this she did, though, writing as a nonpractising atheist, I was not too sure about her having given total commitment to her calling.
Last but not least we had to believe in the vaporous appearance of Bardolph, in the form of Ray Newton; gentle, relaxed, literally other-worldly in the past as in the Grace-imagined present. What could be done dramatically with this part was ably performed by Ray.