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Posts Tagged ‘Charlotte Emmerson’

Jermyn Street Theatre regularly punches above its 70-seat weight. Even in lockdown, it’s productivity and performance (during its own crisis following flooding!) has been exemplary, leading to The Stage’s Fringe Theatre of the Year Award. Amongst its achievements in the last ten years have been three of the best Beckett evenings I’ve had in 40 years of theatre-going in London – this is the third – involving two Dames and a Knight, two directed by the former AD of both the RSC & RNT.

I saw the now infamous production of Footfalls with Fiona Shaw at the Garrick Theatre in 1995, infamous because it only ran 6 days after the Beckett estate took exception to Deborah Warner’s departure from Becket’s sequence of words and stage directions. The independent theatre critic described this as declaring a fatwa on the production! In this short piece, May’s 90-year-old mother is dying. She paces back and forth, 9 steps visually and audibly in each direction outside her room, visibly upset, whilst the ghostly recorded voice of her mother speaks to her, initially responding to questions from May, then direct to the audience, then in the third person about her. Between each a bell rings.

I was lucky enough to see the UK premiere of Rockaby, at the then Cottesloe Theatre in 1982, with Becket’s muse Billie Whitelaw. I think it was only the second Becket play I’d seen, the first ‘miniature’, and it was mesmerising. In this short piece, a woman sits in her rocking chair listening to her own recorded voice, ghostly. It rocks but she doesn’t appear to be creating the movement. When the voice stops, she says ‘more’ and it resumes, until she appears to die.

The whole evening is little more than 40 minutes, but the combination of poetry, atmospheric staging & design and delicate, beautiful performances by Charlotte Emerson and Sian Philips is captivating. It’s been wonderful seeing Sian Phillips’ late career gems – her extraordinary collaboration with physical theatre masters Frantic Assembly in Lovesong, her hypnotic presence in Les Blancs at the NT and a ‘return home’ with Under Milk Wood, also at the NT.

As always with Beckett, lighting and sound are as important as set and costumes and Ben Ormerod and Adrienne Quartly’s inputs combine with Simon Kenny’s monochrome set and costumes to serve both pieces very well. Richard Beecham’s staging of both plays is flawless.

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I’m fascinated by the work of J B Priestly, but we rarely get a chance to see more than a few of his plays. Stephen Daldry’s iconic NT production of  An Inspector Calls seems to be on tour permanently and When We Are Married gets wheeled out fairly often, but that’s about it. The NT gave us Time & The Conways a couple of years ago and Southwark Playhouse put on the very rare They Came to a City earlier this year. So here was a chance to catch this one on tour to Richmond.

It’s more conventional and less moralistic, political, radical and experimental than I’ve got used to from Priestly. They say it’s his most Chekovian, a comment likely to put me off I’m afraid. We’re in the Kirby household, where widower Dr. Kirby is looked after by daughter Lilian whilst son Wilfred is working in Nigeria and theatrical daughter Stella has been on tour now for eight years. Wilfred is home on leave when Stella springs a surprise visit and the family dynamics unfold. Lilian resents Stella leaving her as homemaker and being the subject of local boy Geoffrey’s infatuation whilst she has designs on him herself. Stella’s confession that she married a fellow actor secretly on tour enables Lilian to get her own back.

Laurie Sansom’s production is virtually faultless. He has a fine attention to detail and evokes Edwardian society brilliantly. I wasn’t convinced  by the backdrop of Sara Parks design, but her drawing-room was appropriately claustrophobic and spot on for the period (not that I personally remember 1912!). There isn’t a fault in the casting, with Charlotte Emmerson and Daisy Douglas particularly good as Stella and Lilian and an auspicious professional debut by Nick Hendrix as son Wilfred. Daniel Betts really came into his own in the terrific drunk scene in Act III.

This will never be my favourite Priestly – too Checkovian! – but I’m glad I saw it in a production it would be hard to better.

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