Stars explained: * A production of no real merit
with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not
enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real
life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A
good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely
achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a
great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major
flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic
which lifts theatre to another plane.
Paul Viles as Dr Mead, Mary Whitehouse as Ursula, David Smith as Andrea, Sandra Haynes as Janet, Jill Simkin as Dorcas and Leah Solmaz as Olga. Pictures: Alastair Barnsley
Ladies in Lavender
GRANGE have found a charming, gentle comedy, comfy, cosy theatre one might say, with delightful performances on a splendid looking set.
The play has had a long gestation, starting off as a short story from 1908 by William J Locke, turned into a film for a directorial debut by Charles Dance in 2004 and then adapted for the stage in 2012 by Shaun McKenna.
I must admit the film was beautifully filmed and acting from dames Dench and Smith the usual joy to behold but beyond that . . . maybe it was just me, but I found the plot struggling to fill the time between the opening and the roll of the credits, everything meandering along at the speed of an arthritic snail.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find director Rosemary Manjunath and her excellent cast keep this very human story moving along, if not at a gallop, at least at a pleasant stroll, full of gentle humour, with a side helping of pathos – much more satisfying fare than the film.
The story is simple; set in 1937, aging spinster sisters Ursula and Janet Widdington live in a house left to them by their father overlooking the sea on the Cornish coast. Their life is routine to the point of being regimented. They listen to the radio each evening, taking turns at making cocoa before bed – with a biscuit as a treat at weekends. The village jumble sale or a storm the only excitement and distractions.
Janet had had a fiancée, or at least a young man called Peter. We are never sure of the relationship but we suspect he was never a lover; Peter went off to the First World War and never returned. Since then the sisters have had each other, and Dorcas, their cook, cleaner and bottlewasher.
Life drifts on, summer, to autumn, to winter . . . you get the idea until the excitement of a storm leaves, the next morning, a body, barely alive, washed up on the beach. The young man is brought, unconscious, to Ursula and Janet’s house where he is treated for a broken ankle by the village GP Dr Mead.
Janet, Andrea and Ursula
When he regains consciousness, we discover he speaks no English and no one speaks his language whatever it is, but he does speak German, which neither sister speaks – but they do have father’s book of German grammar.
Ursula sets about teaching him English and slowly we see her falling in love. She knows it is silly, useless, embarrassing – however you want to ridicule it - but as stupid as it might be for an old woman to fall for a young foreigner, it is the first time any hint of romance has touched her life and love, even as futile as this can do strange things.
Mary Whitehouse gives a wonderful performance as Ursula, always deferring to sister Janet until the shipwrecked Andrea arrives when she becomes evasive, secretive even, and shows flashes of uneasy independence, and even defiance, caring for her not so secret love with a girlish wonder like a 70-year-old teenager.
She is struggling with her feelings and, not very subtly, tries to find out about relationships by asking Janet, with very little success, about her and Peter. We can feel her sadness and acceptance of her own silliness when she sees her love affair that never was – and never could be – for what it is.
Sandra Haynes is a Janet who has taken charge since father died and still sees herself as the leader. Hers might not be a romantic feeling for Andrea, but it is certainly protective, not so much to keep the young man safe, you feel, as just to keep him there. Whether she sees him as a sort of child she and Peter never had, or just likes having someone around, a bit of excitement, someone else to care for, we will never know, but she is prepared to do anything to keep him around, like a stray animal she has taken in, protecting both him, and sister Ursula from threats only she could understand.
Indeed she hides Andrea away from what she sees as the prying eyes of Olga, a young, attractive foreigner, an artist, who has rented a nearby cottage. We have discovered Andrea is a Polish violinist and she fears Olga will take Andrea away to follow his dream.
Minds can be deceptive companions. We can all be 18 again, whatever our age, and there is nothing wrong in being young at heart, except when we believe it to be true in love.
And Dr Mead, in a lovely performance from Paul Viles, is another smitten. This time by Olga. The good doctor, who plays violin in an amateur orchestra, is a widower, yet still talks of his wife, who did not like him practising, as if she is alive. He kindly loans his violin to Andrea.
Olga and Andrea in the fateful meeting on the beach which brings everything to a head
Viles shows a clever change in Mead as he first woos Olga in a gentle, very old fashioned and avuncular way and then becomes petulant, almost angry after he sees her talking to Andrea, who plays for her, on the beach – demanding his violin back.
It is as much an anger with himself, and sad realisation, as it is with Ursula, of a shattered impossible dream - that he has been a silly old fool.
Leah Solmaz is a splendid Olga with a clear foreign accent and a lovely manner as she deals kindly, but firmly, with the attentions, none too forward we should add, of Dr Mead who, in truth, shows more loneliness than any hint of lust.
And then there is the target of all this attention, David Smith in his debut for Grange. It would be easy to believe he really was Polish with his struggling, and slowly improving, English. A very convincing performance as he treats Janet and Ursula as kindly, old aunts.
And finally, with no romantic or possessive thoughts whatsoever, we have the no nonsense Dorcas played by Jill Simkin with a glorious West Country accent. She tells the sisters that people are talking about them having a man in the house, argues with them regularly, complying . . . under sufferance, and as Andrea became more mobile, saw him as an extra pair of helping hands.
The whole play is driven by some lovely, gentle humour, laugh out loud at times, as two old women and an old doctor make fools of themselves which makes the inevitable end even more poignant. A superb cast who work together well.
Lighting design from Stan Vigurs was effective, picking out characters for emphasis a couple of times and giving us sunny days sitting room evenings and even a storm.
Manjunath, assisted by Elizabeth M Smith in her fine direction, also designed the outstanding set which gave us well defined garden, beach, sitting room and bedroom. Even through the doors and windows we could see the set extending into the wings.
Music also played its part, as you would expect with a violinist, with Chris Corocan on piano and Liz Tooney on violin providing the honours in Colin Mears well designed sound.
There is little to fault in what is a most satsfying production, well-acted with gentle pace and humour. If you liked the film, and many did, you will love this. If you disliked the film then give it a try. You might even enjoy it, I did. To 25-03-17
Ladies in Lavender is unusual as it gives lead parts to three older actors and Paul Viles returns in the next Grange production which is another play for three older actors, the wonderful Heroes, an adaption and translation from the French by Tom Stoppard. It is directed again by Rosemary Manjunath, this time with Dexter Whitehead – running 18-27 May.