Still Life & Red Peppers: Noel Coward
The Old Red Lion, 418 John Street, London EC1V 4NJ to 24 August 2013
Tues – Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat & Sun 3pm
Runs 1 hr 45 mins One interval, to 24 August
TICKETS: 0844 412 4307
Review: William Russell 1 August
A brief encounter worth making.
In 1935 Noel Coward devised Tonight at 8.30. a series of ten short plays, shuffled in differing groups of three each night, as a showcase for his own talents and those of his life long friend, Gertrude Lawrence. They are variable in quality and not all have stood the passage of time.
One of them, Still Life, was transformed with a script by Coward into Brief Encounter directed by David Lean, one of the greatest British films. It is almost an impossible act to follow, but in reality the play is a substantial work in its own right and this staging by Anthony Lau in an impressive set by James Turner is about as good as it gets. Lau has treated the material with more respect than Kneehigh did in the most recent production I have seen of the piece.
Set in a railway buffet in a Midlands town we follow the romance between a married woman and a married doctor who helps her when she gets a piece of grit in her eye from a passing engine. Around the pair, an impeccably respectable couple bound by the social conventions of the time, Coward has set a collection of people with problems of their own – the widowed buffet manageress, who is being romanced by a porter, her assistant who is worrying about a dying parent, the young station hand who fancies the girl and a spectacularly insensitive and nosey friend of the woman.
The world of 1930s England, when a cup of tea cost threepence, upper lips were stiff and people knew their place is beautifully caught by a first rate cast. As the manageress Suzanne Sylvester is gloriously bossy, as Laura Jesson, the wife and mother who falls for the doctor, Georgina Strawson is perfectly in period, and there is a neatly judged comic turn from Laura Hanna as Dolly Messiters, the garrulous friend who comes across the couple at the precise moment the affair is about to end. If there is a weakness, and there is nothing wrong with his performance, it is that Freddie Capper as the doctor is just a shade too young looking. These are people in early middle age comfortable in their marriages, parents of growing up children, who suddenly, insanely find themselves madly in love with a stranger.
The other playlet making up the double bill, Red Peppers, the most popular of the lot, as fared less well with the passage of time. It is about a music hall comedy song and dance act on the way down to the bottom of the bill. The world of the halls is long gone and the play has dated badly.
It has, however, two of Coward’s better comic songs, Has Anybody Seen Our Ship, the HMS Peculiar and Men About Town, and Laura Hanna and Simon Manyonda as the fighting Peppers perform with brio, although they fail to convey the desperation behind the wise cracking, quarrelsome façade. Life for these clowns is no laughing matter.
Laura Jesson: Georgina Strawson
Myrtle Bagot: Suzan Sylvester
Beryl Walters: Katharine Drury
Stanley: Matthew Cavendish
Albert Goodby: Edward Howells
Alec Harvey: Freddie Capper
Bill: Salvatore D’Aquilla
Johnnie: Sean Rigby
Dolly Messiters: Laura Hanna
George Pepper: Simon Manyonda
Lily Pepper: Laura Hanna
Bert Bentley: Edward Howells
Mr Edwards: Sean Rigby
Mabel Grace: Suzan Sykvester
Alf – Matthew Cavendish
Director: Anthony Lau
Assistant Director: Becky Catlin
Designer: Janes Turner:
Lighting Designer: Scott Pryce-Jones
Composer and Sound Designer: Edward Lewis