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Posts Tagged ‘Rodney Ackland’

This was only Rodney Ackland’s third play, written when he was just 23 and first staged in 1932, directed by John Gielgud. Like the other plays of his I’ve seen – After October, Before the Party & Absolute Hell – it’s a character-driven piece. It’s good to catch it in LAMDA’s summer season and add it to my small collection of this underrated playwright’s work.

Divorcee Vera lives in a big London house with her three adult children, sisters Esther & Jenny and their half-brother Gordon. She takes in lodgers, some of whom she treats with more than a little disdain, particularly vacuous toff George and flighty film actress Freda, two of her current crop, alongside writer Val and couple Laura & Jimmie. Val is in love with Esther, but it doesn’t seem to be reciprocated (but her mother worships him). George brings his friend Sylvia to a party and she falls for Gordon. Jenny invites artist Peter into the home, who isn’t who he says he is and appears to be attracted to Freda too. Jenny is going blind.

Though characters have their stories, there isn’t enough time to develop them all, so like the other plays, it comes over as a slice-of-life, in this case young arty middle-class people in the pre-war 30’s. Only Jenny Wall has to act outside her age range as Vera, and she does so very well. I thought Georgina Duncan managed Jenny’s difficult journey extremely well. It’s a fine cast, who are particularly good at creating the behaviour, mannerisms and speech of the period. Ruari Murchison’s terrific set has people coming and going through one external and four internal doors and stairs, which contributes significantly to the animation of Ackland’s play, which is finely staged by Philip Watson.

I saw these eleven players (one wearing a waistcoat) on the evening another eleven were occupied elsewhere, so it was small audience, but I suspect we had a more relaxed and satisfying evening! The play may not be up to the others, but it gets a very good production and was a great opportunity to catch another Ackland. Only 12 to go!

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Rodney Ackland is a bit of a lost playwright; I’ve only known three of his twelve original plays and nine adaptations, including this one, produced in more than thirty-five years of London theatre-going. It was first staged in 1952 as The Pink Room, but it must have been in a very sanitised form, given the existence of theatre censorship at the time. It was very badly received and Ackland became dejected and only wrote two more plays, yet he lived for another forty years. Post-war London just didn’t have the stomach for his slice of bohemian Soho life. He returned to it thirty-six years later when this new, racier version was produced at the Orange Tree, on BBC TV and here at the Lyttelton, the latter two with Judi Dench in the lead.

It’s set in members club La Vie en Rose over a month in the summer after the end of the war in Europe, during the general election campaign where Labour ousted Churchill. It revolves around club proprietor Christine Foskett and her best customer, writer Hugh, who’s relationship with his partner Nigel and his career are both rocky, oblivious to his mum and her friend who he bizarrely invites to the club. Other members include Austrian black marketeer Siegfried and his girlfriend Elizabeth, film producer Maurice and his secretary Cyril, batty Julia and even battier Madge, a soapbox crusader, posh Lettice ‘the treacle queen’ and wild-man artist Michael, not forgetting assistant Doris and the cook. Into this melange, American GI’s Butch and Sam arrive to satisfy Christine and steal Elizabeth.

It’s character-driven rather than story-driven; the Labour Party offices visible next door link it to what’s happening outside the club. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine. Designer Lizzie Clachan turns the Lyttelton into a vast space, with stairs down to the kitchen and two floors up to the restaurant and beyond. I wasn’t convinced by the idea of prostitute Fifi almost continually walking around the space, and sometimes there’s so much going on, and so much background talk and music, that you’re struggling to focus on the essence of a scene, but that still didn’t detract from what was for me an enthralling, immersive experience which has lost 40 minutes, including two-thirds of the second interval, since the first preview and I suspect is better for it.

You’d be hard pressed to find so many fine performances on one stage in one night. Kate Fleetwood is superb as gin-soaked vamp Christine, as is Charles Edwards as highly-strung homosexual Hugh. Surrounding them are terrific turns from Jonathan Slinger as manipulative Maurice (hot-footing it over from The Old Vic), Patricia England as delightfully batty Julia, Joanna David as Hugh’s loyal but naive mum, Lloyd Hutchinson as larger-than-life artist Michael, Liza Sadovy as aloof Lettice, Esh Alladi as camp Cyril, Eileen Walsh as mad Madge and Prasanna Puwanarajah as Hugh’s on-off partner Nigel. There are twenty-four named parts and twenty-eight actors! Joe Hill-Gibbins marshals them very well.

The comments on exit and the walkers at the intervals proved it’s a marmite show, but those still there at the end cheered. Great to see it again after 23 years. More Ackland please!

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I’ve waited 18 years to see another Rodney Ackland play. During this time, we’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of Chekov’s, Pinter’s and Shaw’s, but nothing by this sadly neglected 20th Century British playwright. Why? He wrote c.25 plays, almost half of them adaptations, and to my knowledge only two of them have been produced in London in the last 30 years or so.

It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the play, largely because the characters are like living museum pieces. They don’t make them like this anymore! Or do they? The Skinner’s are an upper middle-class family of five with three staff (only one of whom we meet). We’re in the immediate post-war period, where rationing, and attempts to overcome it, is still a fact of life. Aubrey is a lawyer seeking the local Conservative nomination. His wife Blanche is a bit useless. Elder daughters Laura & Kathleen forever bicker; Laura has returned from the Gold Coast a widow but already has a new man in her life and spinster Kathleen is lonely & jealous. Younger daughter Susan can’t understand any of them.

Aubrey, Blanch & Kathleen are dreadful snobs, more than a bit racist, contemptuous of the staff and the lower classes and obsessed with how others see them. Social climbers, their over-riding need is to conform, so they are outraged that Laura would abandon her mourning clothing and contemplate re-marriage so soon. Things get worse as the truth of her husband’s death emerges, then turn again as her boyfriend David’s pedigree becomes known. The ending is very clever.

This must have been way ahead of its time with such sharp social satire. It’s bitingly funny and occasionally shocking and you love to hate these people, whist you recognise aspects of their attitudes and behaviours in yourself and others. We never see the party, but spend the whole play in Laura’s bedroom before and after it; projected animations of the exterior of the home and the journey back from the party provide a highly original way to link to it.

Director Matthew Dunster is lucky to have such a terrific cast. Michael Thomas & Stella Gonet bring alive the period values brilliantly. June Watson is a treat to watch as Nanny, seemingly loyal yet with an undercurrent of contempt. Michele Terry, playing perhaps the most conservative of them all, captures but contains the repressed feelings of Kathleen. Laura is a psychologically complex character and it must be hard to find the right balance, but Katherine Parkinson does this beautifully. I loved Anna Fleischle’s period perfect design which somehow brought the stage towards you so that felt very close to it all.

The extraordinary production of Absolute Hell at the NT in 1995 should have prompted lots more Ackland, but it didn’t. Lets hope this fine revival does better.

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