Repertory theatre has, according to some, including veteran director Sir Trevor Nunn, been in substantial decline in recent years, with unfavourable consequences. Nunn’s line of argument is that without rep theatre, a major source of talent supply to the West End is cut off. The result, now in evidence, are known names from outside the theatre industry being thrust into principal roles.
Unfamiliarity with repertory theatre has affected audiences too: at least one person in the crowd was confused at the concept of four plays and a musical being presented as part of the Ever HopeFull [sic] Rep Season 2015, not quite grasping that not all five shows would be performed every night. My fellow theatregoer’s companion was forced to use a football analogy – rep theatre is, apparently, like a squad rotation system.
Still, the programme is so ambitious that even on press night just 40 per cent of the total dramatic output is on show. Two shows, each about 80 minutes. In both, there is some use of projections to help set time and place effectively (though unquestionably the costumes help too). In the first, ‘American Venus’, the projections are almost in place of traditional scene changes, and thus the momentum of the piece is maintained; in the second, ‘This Thing Called Love’, there is more movement of set. This works well, too, in its own way, allowing the audience a little breathing space in the intensity of the evening’s proceedings.
Indeed, ‘American Venus’, being about a has-been movie star, Louise Brooks (Susan Penhaligon), was rather relentless. Brooks’ unsentimental if abrasive approach begins as refreshing but eventually outstays its welcome. It is only in hindsight that I can draw a parallel between her increasingly constricted breathing (due to emphysema and other health complications) and the metaphorical suffocating she causes to those who love her dearly, consistently choking (as it were) any good feeling that may have existed in her bedroom at any given time – even her carer Phyllis’ (Mary Keegan) birthday.
Any comparisons between this and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard would be inept. Brooks is not insane, nor does she have delusions of grandeur, nor is her fan mail faked by her faithful servant. Quite the opposite: one could even say she puts herself down too much, and is paranoid that people will laugh at her, wheelchair-bound and wrinkled as she now is. But despite all her negativity, there’s humour in her self-deprecation. She is one of those people who are old and fearless enough to speak their own mind forthrightly because they know they’re not long for this world in any event. For instance, having clarified that, “It’s the f*cking I miss, not the men!” she muses that “There was a time when I would walk into a room and there would be more wood than in a lumber yard!”
There is, therefore, despite her uncompromisingly difficult nature, still some sympathy for her as she progressively declines. It’s acted so very well. The flashbacks to old times, performed skilfully by Young Louise (Angharad George-Carey) and Charlie Chaplin (Tim Walton), seemed too short for me (or perhaps they were so good I was slightly hacked off whenever they ended, who knows).
After the interval, in ‘This Thing Called Love’, Jack (Walter Van Dyk) is a man who continually acts before he has thought things through, often with laugh-out-loud results (for the audience, at least).
Attempting to kindle a relationship with Maggie (Felicity Dean), he stumbles and misinterprets her state of mind so often and so comprehensively that he becomes almost loveable both in his earnestness and imperfection. The strength in this piece lies not so much in what is said but in what isn’t, and there are some priceless facial expressions in Dean’s performance that paint a thousand words.
They are both widowed. It would logically follow that there is perfect (or near-perfect) compatibility as they both have endured bereavement. But: she has entered paradise regained now her husband is dead, and is quite enjoying doing her own thing, thank you very much. He, meanwhile, is very clingy to her, sometimes desperately so. There are some very rapid, equally piercing and hilarious lines by writer Shelley Silas that had the audience roaring with laughter. It’s not all comedy, though.
The whole piece is summarised well in a reflective question asked by Maggie, perhaps a rhetorical one: “Can you really love and grieve at the same time?”
What strikes me most about both plays is how very believable they were. Both times I was fully engaged in the story, and the level of acting was frankly flawless. It seemed very clear that these groups of actors were enjoying themselves telling their story to us. While not really suitable for anyone not old enough to drive, if you’re looking for something definitively new but also of excellent quality, it’s to be found in the Ever Hopefull Repertory Season.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Four voices, four wildly different plays. ‘American Venus’ tells the story of a once famous movie star now depending on the kindness of strangers, based upon the life of Louise Brooks. ‘The House’ is a black comedy about the perils of selling the house, in which you have built your life and marriage, to another younger couple. ‘Mercy’, a poignant tale of love and regret as a newly widowed woman comes face to face with a great love from her past. ‘This Thing Called Love’ is a love story for grown ups, where we follow the chequered romance of two lovers past the first bloom of youth.
In an innovative season presenting two plays every night, three on Fridays and Saturdays. There is something for everyone from eighteen to eighty. We look forward to welcoming regular theatre goers alongside a new audience for what promises to be a bold and entertaining month.
By Leslie Mildiner
Directed by Sarah Berger
Louise – Susan Penhaligon
Frank – Brian Deacon
Phyllis – Mary Keegan
Stan – Nicholas Waring
Charlie Chaplin – Tim Walton
Young Louise – Angharad George-Carey
Tara – Sophia Swannell
This Thing Called Love
By Shelley Silas
Directed by Ben Caplan
Jack – Walter Van Dyk
Maggie – Felicity Dean