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Posts Tagged ‘Poppy’

Peter Nichols, who sadly died last month, before this revival of his first major play opened, was for me one of the most underrated playwrights of the late 20th Century. His plays covered diverse subjects, his experiments with structure were highly original and he often added music to great effect. His relationships with producers were however problematic, though he did have three plays produced by the RSC and two by the NT, and this seems to have affected the fortunes of later plays and limited the number of revivals of earlier plays. This is only the second West End production of this play since its London premiere 52 years ago.

Nichols drew on his own experience of bringing up a disabled child. Bri and Sheila’s 15-year-old is severely handicapped, both physically and mentally. Bri uses humour to distract from and cope with his plight. Sheila is more matter-of-fact about it. On this particular day, shortly before Christmas, their ability to cope is pushed to, even beyond, the limit. When Bri returns from his day as a teacher, he is faced with caring for Josephine alone so that Sheila can have her break at the local AmDram, something Bri has encouraged. When Sheila returns she brings Freddie and Pam, fellow amateur thespians, who have yet to meet Joe. Bri’s mother also turns up, so we see three other reactions and perspectives on the situation.

In addition to performing in character, they all address the audience directly, and Bri and Sheila act out past visits to doctors. The play starts with the audience as Bri’s pupils, assembled at the end of the school day. It’s often uncomfortable, with black humour acting as a release for the audience, as it does for Bri as a character. It explores the complex web of emotions these parents have lived with for so long and discusses alternatives to their choice of a combination of Joe living at home with outside day care. These issues are covered objectively and non-judgementally, a vey rounded debate.

Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner are both outstanding as Bri and Sheila, with Storme Toolis, an actress of disability, bringing a deeply moving authenticity to the situation. There is fine support from Clarence Smith and Lucy Eaton as Freddie and Pam and a delightful cameo from Patricia Hodge as Bri’s mum. Peter Mcintosh’s house sits on the floor of Trafalgar Studio One, with flashback scenes and direct to audience dialogue in front, revolving to take us into the family living room. Director Simon Evans’ direction is sympathetic to the material, bringing out the timeless quality in it.

We’ve seen Privates on Parade, Passion Play and Lingua Franca relatively recently, but there are other Nichols’ plays desperately waiting for revival, with my top four being Poppy, The National Health, Forget-me-not Lane and Chez Nous. Lets hope this revival of his first spurs others on.

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With Privates on Parade a recent big success as the opening production of the Michael Grandage Company, an acclaimed A Day in the Death of Joe Egg en route from Liverpool to Kingston and this one on its way into the West End, it looks like we’re in for a long-awaited Peter Nichols revival. I’m sure he’d rather see some of his later plays produced (so would I), but I suppose we have to be thankful for small mercies. Nichols was one of the best and certainly most original British playwrights of the 20th century and he has, up to now, been sadly neglected in this century.

Passion Play is about adultery. The children of music teacher Eleanor & art restorer James have now left home. Friend Albert traded in his wife Agnes for younger model Kate before he died. Kate, with a penchant for older men, now has her sights on James. Nichols big idea is to place Nell & Jim on stage too – Eleanor & James’ alter ego’s who comment, invisible to other characters, giving us the thoughts to accompany the behaviours. Agnes turns up occasionally to present Eleanor with some home truths that drive the story forward.

For a 32-year old play, this still seems innovative and ever so contemporary. David Levaux’s production sparkles. He’s lucky enough to have a premiere league cast with Zoe Wanamaker and Samantha Bond both superb as Eleanor & Nell. Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton are less alike as James & Jim, but succeed in presenting the outer and inner man. Annabel Scholey is an ice cool sexy vamp as Kate and Sian Thomas is luxury casting as Agnes. This was only the second performance of it’s pre-West End run in Richmond, but it’s in remarkably good shape already.

The play has less heart than other Nichols’ plays and one of my companions found it too cynical. Personally, I think it’s revival is perfectly timed and will hopefully propel the renewed interest in this underrated playwright. Now what we really need is to see Poppy again – a musical about the relationship between China and the west during the opium wars times in the favourite theatrical form of those times – the pantomime. A masterpiece!

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