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The Lady of the Camellias at Waterloo East Theatre

Marguerite with Camellia
Marguerite with Camellia

There’s been some discussion recently about high theatre ticket prices: I am of the view that it’s purely a commercial equation – if Hamilton producers can get £250 a ticket then they will. And it’s sold out every night. On the other hand, on any given evening, there are about a hundred affordable shows all over London, in small fringe venues, pubs, vaults and railway arches: you can spend just ten to twenty quid and see high-quality theatre of every style, variety and genre – and fully get your money’s worth.

The Lady of the Camellias at Waterloo East is a classic example of this. An affectionate and engaging adaptation of the novel and play by Alexander Dumas, fils, by Nimbus Theatre Company it’s a real pleasure to sit in this particular railway arch – distant rumbling of trains notwithstanding – and submerge oneself in the colourful intrigue of mid-19th century Parisienne high society. And the show is blessed with some outstanding performances.

Ashleigh Cole takes the central role of Marguerite Gautier, the “Lady” of the title, a high-class courtesan who leaves a string of rich and doting admirers in her wake. Gautier cleverly brings a charming innocence to her portrayal of this exponent of a hard-nosed, mercenary profession and gets our sympathy from the start. She has a delightfully subtle demeanour when interacting with her lover, Armand, without ever plummeting into gushing emotional overdrive. For me, it’s a two hundred and fifty-pound performance on a fifteen quid stage.

Lover Armand is played with starry, wide-eyed disbelief at his good fortune by Jason Plessas. He’s a great foil for Cole and the two of them – who inevitably have a lot of scenes together – create a pleasantly warming relationship that permeates the auditorium like mulled wine on a winter’s evening. Plessas is adept at getting the maximum emotional impact without ever, like Cole, resorting to over-playing his hand. These two together are a delight.

They are ably supported by a strong cast which includes Robin Pinkney in two roles as the Milliner and Marguerite’s Maid, Mark Shaer who, rightly, never quite goes full-bombast as the Baron and Nicolaus Mackie who gives an intensely immaculate performance as Armand’s father. (Mackie also produces).

Prudence in hat shop
Prudence in hat shop

And then, settling like a colourful, calming cloud over proceedings, is Jenny Runacre as Marguerite’s (slightly) older confidante, advisor and, to use the modern parlance, her bezzie. Runacre, method exponent par excellence, commands the stage without ever dominating it – a generous, collegiate approach that she shares with musical icon Patti Lupone in the current West End production of Company. Normally, when a screen star arrives on the West End stage it’s with great fanfare but here we have Hollywood royalty appearing almost unnoticed in a little theatre down the road from the Old Vic and the National. The star of John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970), Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) – where she appears alongside Jack Nicolson and Maria Schneider – and her eclectic dual roles in Jubilee (1978), directed by her pal Derek Jarman (sadly no longer with us) all show that it is her craft that is the most important driving force whether it be on the silver screen, on television or down in the back streets of Waterloo. Prudence is a great role for her – she’s a bit of a gossip, she likes a flamboyant hat and Runacre sports her Zandra Rhodes jacket with the nonchalant aplomb of a supermodel. It’s a wonderful performance – a privilege to be in the audience. Runacre continues to appear in films, directs plays, teaches and often works with her daughter Mariele Runacre Beck in her Wireless Theatre Company.

The adaptation is by Cloud Downey and Jo Dalton (whom, the programme notes, sadly passed away last year). Downey also directs and, he tells me, designed the costumes – though Atelier Nuage, Zandra Rhodes and Kitty Joseph are also credited. In addition, Downey takes the role of frame Narrator – in the persona of Alexander Dumas, fils. And this is my one gripe about the show. Dressed in appropriate 19th-century garb he proceeds to read the narration from a very modern-looking plastic display folder. With all the excellent detail in the props, furniture, costume and make-up of the piece surely the producer could have stumped up for a suitably ancient dusty tome? And, whilst I appreciate that Mr Downey has a lot on his plate, surely he could show appropriate respect for his superlative cast by learning the narration – and, if not, getting someone else to do it: personally I would favour members of the cast, as their characters, narrating.

That aside this is a lovely show and well worth a watch. And, incidentally, I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Hamilton!

4 stars

Review by Peter Yates

The Lady of the Camellias
NOVEL la dame aux camelias

Narrator – Cloud Downey
Milliner – Robin Pinkney
Marguerite Gautier – Ashleigh cole
Prudence Duvornoy – Jenny Runacre
Armand Duval – Jason Plessas
Nanine (maid) – Robin Pinkney
Baron de Varville – Mark Shaer
Monsieur Duval – Nicolaus Mackie

Technical director Gareth McLeod
Lighting designer ALEX WILLMER

Costumes by Atelier Nuage
Jackets for Ms. Runacre & Ms. Pinkney
by Zandra Rhodes
Mr Shaer’s dressing gown by Kitty Joseph
Production photos by Gareth Mcleod
This production is dedicated to the memory of Jo Dalton 1964-2018

March 7 – 24 2019


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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