Still shining with a magical sparkle

 

Wolverhampton Grand

*****

A GOOD cast can make an indifferent or even a bad script watchable so give them something of real quality to work with and you are in for a treat.

On Golden Pond is perhaps best known for the 1981 film version starring Jane and Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn but Ernest Thompson's original 1979 off-Broadway play had already been showered with awards before Jane Fonda snapped up the film rights for what was, in essence, a family affair.

The play is lighter and funnier than the film, peppered with one liners between the cantankerous Norman, a grumpy old man par excellence, who is about to celebrate his 80th birthday, and  his long-suffering, in the nicest possible way, wife Ethel.

Hollywood veteran Richard Johnson bestrides the stage as a colossus as Norman, a man who does not suffer fools gladly, or indeed anyone else for that matter. Remarkably Johnson is actually playing the part of someone younger than himself. The star is 85 this year, not that you would ever know it. He provides more than ample proof to the notion that age is just a number with, offstage, a ready smile, a wealth of stories and anecdotes and a twinkle in both eyes for confirmation.

Matching him stride for stride is Stefanie Powers, perhaps best known as Jennifer Hart from the 80s TV series Hart to Hart. There is much more to Hart than that though including a whole career in the theatre, as well as films and TV, and if that is not enough there is her work with zoos and her commitment to wildlife conservation in East Africa with the William Holden Wildlife Foundation which she formed in 1982.

She plays Ethel Thayer, which needs a decent speech defect or perfect teeth to say successfully.

The play opens as the pair arrive at their summer cottage on Golden Pond in Maine for the 48th year and closes as the summer ends and they return home to Wilmington.

Richard Johnson as Norman and Stefanie Powers as his wife Ethel

Norman, who amuses himself fishing, reading and looking for jobs he is never going to apply for in the local newspaper, thinks he is getting his own way in everything he does.

Not that that worries Ethel. She is happy to let him think he is the cantankerous king of his own kingdom . . . while playing him like the fish he goes off to catch whenever he can.

The pair have superb timing throwing in one liners and asides like a seasoned double act who are easy and comfortable in each other's company. Amid all the quips and friendly fire though, there comes through a deep love and bond between a couple who have grown up and grown old together and it is to their credit that Johnson and Powers convince us they really are Norman and Ethel in the twilight days of a love affair.

Norman sees himself as the strong one, apparently in control of what remains of his life, the one who does not want a crowd for his birthday – crowd being his daughter and her new boyfriend.

Yet behind the bravado is a vulnerability, the first signs that Norman's memory is failing, particularly when he rushes back empty handed after going to pick strawberries because he had forgotten where he was going and how to get there and that made him frightened.

He ran back to “where I am safe – where I am still me”. It is a universal fear that haunts everyone as age starts to run away from them.

While there is a closeness between Norman and Ethel there is distance between particularly Norman and daughter Chelsea, played by Elizabeth Carling. Chelsea, at 42, has passed through child bearing age without bearing children as Norman so delicately puts it. She is the end of the Thayer line.

After years of never seeing her her parents she arrives with new boyfriend, dentist Bill Ray, played by Walsall actor (and Behind The Arras reviewer) Tom Roberts, along with Bill's 14 year-old son Billy, played by Graeme Dalling, and persuades her parents to look after Billy for a while, while she and Bill head off for a holiday in Europe.

A scene between Bill and Norman is one of the highlights of Act 1 as Norman, as is his wont,  tries to deliberately mislead, misunderstand and mishear his way through their conversation – particularly about sleeping arrangements - while Bill points out he will be friendly and polite but won't be messed about. It is at times very funny.

BOND GROWING

With Chelsea and Bill gone we see the bond growing between Norman and Billy with the octogenarian perhaps seeing in teenager Billy the son he never had and which he had always wanted, something that had not been lost on Chelsea who had grown up trying to please her father.

Normal teaches Billy about fishing and the joys of reading while Billy teaches Norman about the language and the street-wise ways of youth - sucking face and all that, or kissing to me and you.

When Chelsea returns, now as Mrs Ray incidentally, she perhaps sees Billy having the sort of relationship she had always wanted with her father but in a powerful scene first Ethel tells her she cannot keep going on and on  living in the past and then there is a poignant reconciliation of sorts as she and Norman perhaps see each other as they are and what they had become for the first time.

The play ends with Norman, having come too close to death for comfort, ready to visit his daughter and new husband in California but perhaps most of all looking to see Billy, the grandson he thought he would never have, in a bond which  is steadily growing to bridge the 66 years between them.

There are some classic lines, one particular Brussels line worth the price of admission alone, as well as the observation that “there is something to be said for a deviant lifestyle” after Norman hears that a 97 year old lesbian in the small lakeside community has died.

Bearer of that news is Charlie the mailman, played by Kasper Michaels, the ex-boyfriend from childhood of Chelsea who still has feelings for her – thwarted middle aged love all accompanied by a gloriously eccentric laugh.

It is a touching, gentle family story about relationships, about love between old people, between parents and children and between old and young. It is a simple story of human emotions and what makes us who we are. At times it is very funny, at times sad. It is beautifully paced with fine acting and sensitive direction by Michael Lunney who also designed the convincing set.

Lunney is the co-founder of Malvern's Middle Ground Theatre Company which is coming up to its 25th year. The company had one of my favourite plays of 2010 with Frankie & Johnny in the Clair De Lune and this keeps the standard flying high. A most enjoyable evening.

Roger Clarke

On Golden Pond runs to 04-02-12 at the Grand and has two other Midland dates on its national tour opening next week on 06-01-12 for a week at Malvern and later in the year it is at Lichfield Garrick, where Tom Roberts is producer of the Rep incidentally, for a week starting 10-04-12.

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