BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE
by John Van Druten.
New Victoria Theatre Etruria Road ST5 0JG To 28 February 2015.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat 2.15pm.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
TICKETS: 01782 717962.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 19 February.
Skilful production of a hardly bewitching piece.
Through the second half of last century John Van Druten’s dramatic reputation lay beneath American critic Walter Kerr’s dismissive three-word review of a play adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories, I Am A Camera: “Me no Leica”.
This century, London’s Fringe has done better by Van Druten, with Southwark Playhouse fielding a likeable Camera, the Finborough revealing in 1931’s office drama London Wall the tragic isolation of an unmarried middle-class woman condemned by the attitudes of the age, and Jermyn Street Theatre revealing the impassioned intensity created by family attitudes around World War One in Flowers of the Forest.
But the New Vic’s attempt to make something of this 1950 piece falls, if honourably. Its relaxed comedy about witches living respectably in New York shows none of the other plays’ urgency. Hollywood and TV, in the mid-century and since, have explored the comedy inherent in people with magical powers behaving impeccably by social codes, unless a rash of mischief or revenge breaks out.
Here, a telephone suddenly stops working, with humour coming from the audience’s understanding of an event that puzzle some characters, and leave others trying to resolve a problem without giving the game away.
At the centre is Gillian Holroyd, whom Emma Pallant plays with conscience and truth. As in many magic tales, love for a human drains away magic powers, though it happens without causing too much concern in Gwenda Hughes’ production. There again, Pallant’s Gillian is kept busy sorting-out the problems others create and keeping her loving eye on her initially tetchy neighbour.
This leaves room for the heightened sense Janice McKenzie brings to Gillian’s noisome sister. It’s a star performance in a side-role and could easily have been overdone and actressy. But McKenzie, as always, brings human truth and underlying feeling even to her character’s most outrageous and self-indulgent moments.
There’s good work too from Geoffrey Breton as the unaware neighbour, Adam Barlow as the camp family brother, whose clothing takes us from the conservative fifties setting towards later sixties trends, plus Mark Chatterton as a bumbling witchcraft academic. But the play itself remains unbeguiling.
Nicholas Holroyd: Adam Barlow.
Anthony Henderson: Geoffrey Breton.
Sidney Redlitch: Mark Chatterton.
Miss Holroyd: Janice McKenzie.
Gillian Holroyd: Emma Pallant.
Director: Gwenda Hughes.
Designer: Michael Holt.
Lighting: Daniella Beattie.
Sound: James Earls-Davis.
Assistant director: Adam Carver.