THE HAPPY JOURNEY TO TRENTON AND CAMDEN and THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER
by Thornton Wilder.
King’s Head Theatre 115 Upper Street N1 1QN To 5 January 2013.
3pm 16, 23, 24, 30 Dec.
5pm 31 Dec.
7.15pm 15, 18-22, 27-29, 2-5 Jan.
RUNS 1hr 15min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7478 0160.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 14 December.
Intriguing miniatures beautifully restored to the stage.
It may be opportunistic to label this double-bill ‘A Thornton Wilder Christmas’ – the season only applies to one play, and then incidentally. Never mind; the 1931 pieces may be minor, but they’re first-rate minor and Tim Sullivan’s production catches their qualities perfectly.
Long Journey is a short piece showing typical middle-class New Englanders visiting relative Beulah. Father Elmer calmly drives while smoking his pipe, Ma’s the backseat upholder of moral values, son Arthur inclines to sulks before seeking to regain maternal approval, while younger Caroline rides cheerfully along.
They catch every cracker-barrel aspect of their town, from Elmer’s watchful driving, period steering-wheel, shift and brakes precisely imagined in the play’s minimalist style, through Ma’s constant commentary from the aptly-raised rear seat, to the children’s fidgety body-language. It would be perfect ‘30-s Hollywood without Ben Z Fulava’s deliberately flat, read-in Stage Manager (another aspect of Wilder things to come).
Performances perfectly indicate the hollowness of the cheerful complacency – several times fading to nothing – up to the final moments where happy heights collapse into a sudden, wordless ending; without indulging in the exaggeration that would indicate the cast’s awareness of the dialogue’s carefully-contrived hokum.
Christmas Dinner looks forward to American theatre’s mid-century flirtation with Absurdism and the technical innovations of Alan Ayckbourn in the 1970s. Its strategy unfolds as the meal – all imagined, table and chairs apart – stretches over several generations, characters being born and admired as a Nurse beings on a pram, moving through childhood into adult responsibility then declining into the stiffer, breathier movement of age.
General contentment’s interrupted by an infant death, keenly shown as the Nurse whisks the pram from admiring family members, by glib talk of war’s virtues undercut by a fatality and the threat a marriage brings to the family home.
As memories of Indians living where the house stands become memories of those memories, the play joins its partner in a finely-felt mix of surface cheer and underlying melancholy, expressed in the quietly fading close. Stephanie Beattie beautifully contrasts matriarchal Ma with the silently efficient Nurse, but all are very fine.
The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden:
Stage Manager: Ben Z Fulava.
Ma: Stephanie Beattie.
Arthur: David Gerits.
Caroline: Rosy Benjamin.
Elmer: Simon Dobson.
Beulah: Tamarin McGinley.
The Long Christmas Dinner:
Lucia: Rita Walters.
Mother Bayard/Cousin Ermengarde: Carole Street.
Roderick/Samuel: David Gerits.
Cousin Brandon/Roderick II: Ben Z Fulava.
Nurse/Lucia II: Stephanie Beattie.
Charles: Simon Dobson.
Genevieve: Tamarin McGinley.
Leonora: Rosy Benjamin.
Director: Tim Sullivan.
Lighting: Anthony Januzewski.