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Review of After Electra in the Coward Studio at Hampton Hill Theatre

After Electra at Hampton Hill Theatre - photographer Tom Shore
After Electra at Hampton Hill Theatre – photographer Tom Shore

There’s no point beating around the bush: After Electra is a comedy whose central character, Virgie (Fran Billington), wishes to end her life. I’ve been in a position where I would have preferred to “have shuffled off this mortal coil” (to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, Scene I, line 67), and it’s not pleasant to say the least. The difference here is that Virgie wishes to act on such thoughts. Well into pensionable age, she feels that her daughter Haydn (Helen Geldert) dislikes her and wants nothing to do with her (if so, why is Haydn visiting her on her birthday?), and that it is doing nobody any harm by going sooner rather than later. To put it another way, in Virgie’s mind, it is better to go while she is being urged to stay than the alternative.

What makes this work as a comedy then? After all, isn’t the subject matter literally macabre? Part of the appeal, for want of a better word, is in Haydn’s immediate response to the news of Virgie’s intention, mirrored by Virgie’s good friend Tom (David Robins) and his wife Sonia (Helena Koska), invited round for what they thought was going to be a pleasant birthday party. They can’t quite believe what’s just been said, and when Virgie’s sister Shirley (Michelle Hood) turns up, there are yet more objections. The cumulative impact only serves to strengthen Virgie’s resolve, apparently much to her own disappointment. Orin, Virgie’s son, enters – and by now you will have realised that there are enough people present to thwart any attempt on the octogenarian’s part to be taken by her own hand.

Whether Virgie does or doesn’t follow through on her plan (let’s just say there’s an interval for a reason) gradually stops being the most prescient point in a show in which all sorts of family issues are revealed and dirty laundry aired. This also partly this production’s success as a comedy – that, and the generally strong script (April De Angelis), delivered with exquisite comic timing by a tight cast that made only the most superficial (and entirely forgivable) of errors on their first night. The script is mostly well-written but there are some oddities, particularly in the introduction of another character in order to shift the play’s focus. An example: the addition in the second half of Roy (Loz Keal) didn’t add much to the narrative, even if Keal puts in an impeccable performance as an innocent bystander.

The set design (Alice Metcalf) is very good, as is a projection (Aaron Lobo) of the seafront that Virgie’s house backs onto. Geldert’s Haydn, the sort of ‘Electra’ of the play’s title, is the relatively quiet one, the sensible person whose emotional range is, at face value, narrower than everyone around her – it has to be, for she’s keeping things together. And it is an excellent portrayal of a character that doesn’t, by design, get many punchlines, and yet holds her own amongst the more bombastic and eccentric personalities.

A fellow theatregoer who had paid more attention to the programme than I did before the show kindly informed me that African drums were in use at some point. The scene in question is a hoot, even if it is demonstrative of how the comedy element takes precedence over character development. In the end, though, there are plenty of genuinely amusing moments in a show that relishes being facetious. A well-performed, poignant and entertaining production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

I blame the books they learned to read with. Daddy at the office. Mummy looking out of the window while she’s washing up. I should have burnt them. It’s Virgie’s birthday and she is bucking convention. Always more committed as an artist than a mother, in old age Virgie has not reckoned on her family and friends’ determination to thwart her plans.
Warning: This play contains strong language.

In the Coward Studio at Hampton Hill Theatre, Teddington Theatre Club presents
AFTER ELECTRA
A black comedy about family and ageing
By April de Angelis
Directed by Muriel Keech.
Warning: This play contains strong language.
Sunday March 4th to Saturday March 18th 2018
http://www.teddingtontheatreclub.org.uk/

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