This play is a challenge for both the actors and set designers. It is a disturbing and very moving piece which asks, but does not necessarily answer, profound questions about marriage, love, individual freedom, the impossibility of truly knowing another person or indeed oneself - in effect an existentialist play. The central conflict is between self-fulfilment and one's responsibility for the happiness of others.
David Senton's performance as Albie was masterly: his Sudanese trip goes disastrously wrong, he is taken hostage, imprisoned and faces imminent death. His portrayal of this broken changed man, when he finally returns home, was deeply moving. The emotional centre of the play, for me, was his realisation that there may be nothing, a void, outside the imagined shape we give to our lives, and he has a flashback to facing the prison wall with a gun at the back of his neck. His teenage daughter, Sally, rushes to comfort him and the scene was almost unbearably painful to watch.
Joan Crossley as Ruth had a huge range of emotions to portray. A secure and happy wife, she enjoys her involvement in the church choir - and Joan had a great deal of singing to do in this production, reaching a moving climax with Mozart's Laudate Dominum. Her sudden realisation of what is about to happen to her marriage touches a central theme: 'You are only doing what you want,' she accuses Albie and his reply is significant to the whole meaning of the play: 'How else am I to know what to do?' She is then plunged into anger, grief, even spite, finally emerging with what seems a hardened exterior and a determination to move on. Joan gave a very impressive performance indeed.
Emma Muir as Sally, their teenage daughter, was completely convincing, not only in all the frivolities of her newly-cropped hair and her late nights, but also in the electric scene where she comforts her broken father and, unintentionally, wounds him by her intuitive understanding of why he had left them. Emma is a marvellous young talent for the company to possess.
Maggie Nix, as Dr. Mary Hanlon, was quite the reverse of the traditional 'other woman'. There was a low-key diffidence and vulnerability about this character which she caught to perfection. She had never had any success with men, unless they were gay or married, and she was fired by the need to live the life she wants to live - in her case, helping the poor, sick and dispossessed. Her final speech, repeating the request for volunteers after the hostage episode, had a desperate poignancy about it.
There were, in addition, two bachelors in this play. Ruth's brother, Bernard (Mike Newbold), is living at the Steadman home while recovering from a breakdown. He, too, has problems with reality and 'can't quite manage the details' of fractured relationships. Bernard, like his sister, has a lot of music to attend to in the play and Mike Newbold was both confident and convincing in his musicianship. His role also brings humour to defuse the emotional tensions that develop. Angus Ross, the monosyllabic visitor and Ruth's love from her student days, as well played by Denis Butcher. He had attempted to solve life's problems by cutting himself off completely, becoming almost a hermit.
Tony Cole-Hamilton, as Andrew Rainer, was a very urbane senior civil servant, handling the hostage crisis - he looked as though he had been dealing with international incidents all his life! As television interviewer June Armitage, bringing the two women awkwardly together, Davina Foster was appallingly bright and solicitous! Good support also came from Mark James as Smithy, Dr. Hanlon's warehouseman.
The audience was left with a lot to think about. It was interesting to see how Ruth and Albie subtly changed places during the course of the action - she, descending into grief and despair and then apparently rising above it, he, setting out on the great adventure of his life and returning changed and chastened. Their lovely hill-top house comes to represent their altered lives: Ruth loves it, her life revolves around her home at the start of the play, but to Albie it's 'only a house'. When Ruth, thinking her husband has left for good, decides to sell the house, Albie is then appalled at the prospect - 'You can't sell the house! Something has to stay the same, for God's sake!' In order to stay sane, during his imprisonment he has drawn detailed maps, including one of their house - it is, in truth, a 'map of the heart'.
Great praise must also go to the set designers and builders and the lighting crew for making the most of the tiny stage. This was a splendid production with a very strong all-round cast - how fortunate we are in Hertford to have actors and directors of this calibre.
Review: Catherine Henderson