Home » London Theatre Reviews » Still Lives – The Old Waiting Room | Review

Still Lives – The Old Waiting Room | Review

The theatre is finding ways to survive and remain relevant in the age of Netflix and Uber Eats. How to get punters off their sofas and into the public realm? That is the question. One way that is proving very promising is the site-specific show. And Lost Text/ Found Space have put together a winning combination. Two texts by Noel Coward, Still Life (1936) and Quadrille (1952) whilst not exactly lost are certainly lesser known. (The former inspired perhaps the greatest English Romantic film of all time, Brief Encounter (1945). And the venue: The Old Waiting Room at Peckham Rye Station. This Victorian building (empty since 1965) sits between two railway viaducts in the heart of Peckham. Trains arrive and leave on both sides of the building. It’s an absolute masterstroke to visualise the poignancy of putting on a railway romance itself set in a platform waiting room in such a venue. So, ten out of ten for the concept to the director Rebecca McCutcheon and the writer and adapter Dan Rebellato.

Still Lives at The Old Waiting Room. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.
Still Lives at The Old Waiting Room. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.

The execution is somewhat of a mixed bag. Take for example the start. We were told a 7:30pm start but not until 7:40pm did six characters in search of a venue show up. Clearly this was part of the show as we were invited to follow said actors up the stairs to the Old Waiting Room. Now I was in two minds about this start. Was it a deliberate part of the show? That is we are waiting, as it were, to enter the Waiting Room like characters in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Or was the show running late in which case it was jarring? I’m not sure, audiences will have their own take on that. The second difficulty was the seating arrangements once inside the Old Waiting Room. I was told to sit wherever I liked unless it was a table with a white tablecloth. The chair I chose meant that for some crucial scenes, one of the actors had her back to me. I found this difficult, to say the least. I like to see the face of an actor to follow all the nuances of gestures, facial expressions and body language. That’s simply not possible looking at someone’s back. I know the company are trying to break down barriers and be inclusive and involve the audience, but the devil is in the details and this particular seating plan is problematic. My third quibble is about the length. Noel Coward was a great believer in the power of the short play. He wrote a whole sequence of them for Tonight at 8.30 and they are short for a reason. To distill the human condition into a nugget of magic. One hour is enough. By adding quadrille and extending the show by 30 minutes the effect is to over egg the pudding and subsequently lose some of the tautness that was Coward’s hallmark.

On the plus side, the show is terrifically performed by six tremendously talented and highly watchable performers. The central idea hereabouts is what we today call ‘sliding doors moments’, (moments where life changes course) but in this case, we should call them ‘slam doors moments’ as the trains never had sliding doors in the 1930s. But those trains had something far more romantic: sliding windows from which passengers could lean out and kiss someone on the platform. This is the perfect image for Coward; touching and leaving simultaneously. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. The two strangers who become Waiting Room lovers, Laura (superbly realised by Grace Haydn) and Alec (played by the debonair Georgina Peters) are the play’s central focus. And despite what we may regard as pretty outdated dialogue and vocabulary – too many “darlings” for a start – they do manage to convey the temptations and yearnings that lie just beneath all the suburban respectability and normality of English middle-class existence. Laura especially poignantly evokes the conflicted play of emotions she feels as she weighs up the promise and the peril of the enterprise they embark upon. The Waiting Room as a microcosm of what the English call hierarchy is clearly on Coward’s mind in Still Life as he writes a range of couples across the class spectrum from high to low.  For example, Myrtle and Albert, the waiting room tea lady and cheeky chappy cockney ticket collector represent love among the working call. Jade-Marie’s Tea Lady is a wonderfully nuanced combination of martinet and softie. She warms to Albert (the delightfully comic Annabel Marlow) after he stands up for her, by pouring him copious cups of tea and promising that he can come round later tonight. Coward juxtaposes these two couples to show the audience just how different the English classes are in their love affairs. The third couple, Axel and Serena, is difficult to read. But I took it to mean that life repeats itself and the dynamics of relationships remain constant despite time and geography. Isabelle Lee’s Axel is a bombastic nouveau-rich American railroad tycoon who tries on the same schtick on aristocratic Serena that we have just seen Alec use to seduce Laura. The aristocratic Serena (in a marvellously spirited performance from Flora Wellesley) puts up more resistance than Laura but the playbook is pretty much the same. This is where I think the play falls into unnecessary repetition which for my money doesn’t add that much. We get the point. Show don’t tell.

The site-specific effects of real trains stopping and departing amid so much railway and waiting room talk is eerily evocative. The atmosphere of tension is created by some wonderful vocal utterances that mimic the approach of love, doom, trains, or death? There is a wonderful Anna Karenina moment at the platform’s edge, a reference to Turner’s painting ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ in the gallery as the couples come and go talking of Michelangelo and an Edward Hopper-like ‘Night Hawks’ feel to the Waiting Room at the denouement. Coward was a neurotic who veered between hope and despair, love and death, comedy and tragedy. Still Lives displays all this and so much more in a thrilling and highly enjoyable show. William Blake saw Angels in Peckham. You can see their modern equivalents: actors in full flow showing us what it means to be human.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

CAST
Grace Haydn (Laura/Soldier)
Jade-Marie Joseph (Myrtle/Mr Spevin)
Izabelle Lee (Charlotte/Beryl/Axel)
Annabel Marlow (Albert/Dolly/Harry Jenner)
Georina Peters (Alec/Soldier)
Flora Wellesley Wesley (Hubert/Stanley/Serena)

CREATIVES
Rebecca McCutcheon – Director
Dan Rebellato – Writer

Still Lives, a unique site-specific adaptation fusing Noel Coward’s Still Life and his lesser-known Quadrille has now opened as the finale of Making Connections 24 – a community arts festival of free and affordable art events in the stunning Old Waiting Room, at Peckham Rye station.

The production features an all-female cast playing cross-gender roles, placing women’s desire and agency at the heart of the production.

The casting of Still Lives marks a significant step towards reflecting contemporary UK society in a Noel Coward production. The character biographies have been reworked to integrate histories that incorporate migration to the UK.

STILL LIVES
The Old Waiting Room, Peckham Rye Station, Station Way, London SE15 4RX
2nd – 14th July 2024, Tuesday – Saturday, 7.30pm (and 4pm matinees Saturday)

Author

  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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