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.
Jack Hobbis as Gordon, Gwen Evans as Miss Mockridge, Ciara O'Sullivan as Freda, Mark Fetcher as Robert, Dan Payne as Stanton, Kerry Grehan as Olwen and Becky Round as Betty on the spledid Art Deco set. Pictures: Alastair Barnsley.
The Highbury Players
Highbury Theatre Centre
A bit of slow burner, this one, starting and ending with a musical cigarette box, not so much a love triangle as a love hexagon, a missing £500, and all with a touch of Groundhog Day thrown in.
It is set in 1932 among that circle who dressed for dinner, and a time when smoking was not only acceptable but, with a certain elegance and style, a sign of obvious sophistication; thus cigarette cases and a cigarette box and a cast who light up with gay abandon – herbal cigarettes I hasten to add.
We have Miss Mockridge, an author of modest talent, played by Gwen Evans, who is a guest at a dinner party hosted by Robert and Freda Caplan, played by Mark Fletcher and Ciara O’Sullivan. The couple run Whitehouse Publishing Company, Mockridge being one of their authors, and the dinner party is for their two fellow directors.
Fletcher gives us a rather dark, humourless, brooding Robert, a very serious chap who seems much affected by the recent suicide of his brother Martin; a little ponderous perhaps, but like a dog with a bone when he gets a sniff all may not be as it seems when it comes to his brother's untimely end.
Ciara’s Freda, on the other hand, is charm itself but she can show quite a vicious side when the gloves come off as the evening progresses.
The beautifully attired ladies, Olwen, Betty and Freda
There is Freda’s brother, Gordon, in another convincing performance from Jack Hobbis. Gordon has been affected most by Martin’s death, claiming a relationship which appears beyond mere friendship. He wants to avoid thinking about the death and becomes almost hysterical if it is discussed.
His wife Betty, played by Becky Round, is a bit of a blonde (nicely permed) bimbo, attractive, quiet and seemingly invisible and inconsequential to the rest for much of the time. Someone, you would imagine, hardly bright enough to be involved in any intrigue – how deceptive appearances can be!
Charles Stanton, played rather grumpily by Highbury regular Dan Payne, is the final director at the gathering, and the only one who has worked his way up through the company rather than holding a position through nepotism or marriage. He is both humourless and charmless and seems to dislike pretty much everyone.
Although a director, his position, socially, could perhaps be read by the fact he is the only one known and referred to by surname, always Stanton rather than Charles.
Finally there is Olwen, an old friend and employee, played by Kerry Grehan. She is quiet, unassuming and harbours secrets that, if revealed, will devastate the gathering – oh, and she hated Martin.
Martin, by the way, played by Jake Collyer, does pop up in a sort of Lazarus cameo role in Act 2 in a flashback.
It is the smoking and Olwen asking for a cigarette which brings the musical cigarette box into play which in turn brings a chance remark that is the catalyst for a night of confessions, interrogations, examinations, revelations, anger, betrayal . . . in short, a real fun evening among soon to be ex-friends and spouses.
And don't forget the £500 stolen from the office - it might be a modest amount now, little more than petty cash to a large publisher, but back in 1932 it was the equivalent of around £30,500 today. Was Martin the thief and is that why he ended it all? Or is that just the tip of a very large, messy and murky iceberg?
This was J B Priestley’s first play, one in which he wanted to show a writer of long novels could write succinctly enough for the stage – and director Liz Parry keeps a steady hand on the tiller to steer cast and audience to the dramatic conclusion, a finale which should be the tragic end.
The gentlemen, Gordon, Robert and Stanton
Except there is a twist, and a clever one at that, so hold the applause and stay in your seat. We are back with a musical cigarette box and this time a radio which works. Déjà vu? Well, up to a point.
The excellent cast balance the bouts of hysteria well, along with their understandable desire to keep their own secrets hidden while curious to discover those of the others. We see their dilemma as a revelation by another starts to leave them exposed, their discomfort as the layers of deception, lies and pretences are stripped away, like the layers of an onion, until they are left deflated with their comfortable, enviable, lives and relationships in tatters around them.
The costumes are wonderful for the era, old fashioned bow ties and the three main ladies in delightful, sheer dresses cut on the bias so they cling and flow like silk, complete with 1930’s hair styles and stage accents.
Remember those black and white films, all soft focus, from the 30s, with the slow, deliberate cut glass way of talking. The women, in particular, had it off to a tee while Robert and Gordon sounded like gentlemen of the time, with Stanton, the one from a humble background remember, sounding, well, grumpy and somehow resentful.
Jack Hobbis should be thanked for a magnificent set design, all Art Deco and built on site while Stuart Sampson has added some subtle lighting with well balanced sound from Tony Reynolds, particularly effective in the flashback scene.
It is hardly a barrel of laughs, although a few are sprinkled through the script to relieve the cleverly paced and slowly building tension, but it is intriguing enough to carry you along with that hypnotic appeal of watching a slow motion train crash - and then there is that twist. To 13-05-17