Edinburgh Fringe 2019
Thirty years on, four women try to pick up friendships formed in a different era. A different life, even.
The front row of Greenside’s Ivy Room down at Infirmary Street is packed with ladies who look like they might have enjoyed a lunch or two in their time. Perhaps they’re here for a catch up, even though it’s barely past breakfast time but there’s an engaging buzz of chatter from them as the rest of us squeeze into a venue set up to look like one of those fashionable quaffing houses that dominate high streets in the nicer parts of Surrey.
For this is the environment that writer/director from which Niamh Collins hails and (I assume) from where a lot of the perceptive, often toe-curling observational material in her well-crafted script emerged, given that she was brought up by a single parent in a middle-class, Waitrose loving village in the Surrey Hills.
But that she was able to write this piece at the tender age of 16 is quite remarkable. She’s not much older now (she and her actors are all currently students at Durham University) but the quality of the writing makes her someone to watch out for. It’s perceptive, clearly comes from the heart and combines clever, tension relieving one-liners with revealing character monologues and sharp, incisive exchanges as the ladies munch their lunch. And some really, really awkward silences.
Four women are gathering for a reunion lunch, having not set eyes on each other for the thirty years it’s taken them to get hitched, breed children, pack them off to a good boarding school and university, pay off the mortgage, fund their offspring’s first deposit on a bit of real estate, enjoy the grandchildren and so on. Oh, come on, darling, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?
Our four women now qualify for a bus pass but, as one of them doesn’t like driving on the M25, she’s brought her daughter along for the ride. Sally Williams (the huskily voiced Esther Levin) is first to arrive. Outwardly confident, flirting outrageously with the waiter (a lovely vignette played to perfection by Calum Maclean), she exudes the stereotypical brashness of home counties women d’une certain age. But is there something behind that façade?
Meek and mousy Jean Flynn (Anne-Marie Garrett) joins her followed by Vera Littleton, a Sloane-ranger that could out-Sloane anyone. Vera was played by Katie Cervenak who delivered a tour de force performance, somehow managing to look and sound rather closer to the seventy-year old she was playing that I would have thought possible. The quintet was completed by Sandra Hughes and Lorena Taylor, a mother and daughter combination played by Emma Broadhurst and Nicola Samosa, the latter delivering a convincing portrayal of the issues facing “Generation Y” exposing just what a generation gap has arisen over the last decade or so.
Everyone has a tale to tell and there’s much light-hearted bonhomie and banter as our ladies get stuck into the wine and nibbles. But this play is bit like peeling an onion – as the layers are slowly pulled back, so you start to get into material that gradually overwhelms the senses, dampening any earlier excitement about meeting up with old friends and exposing some horrible truths about life from the point of view of the baby-boomer mother, where the traditional family structure of husband, two children and a golden retriever were de rigeur.
Slowly the secrets emerge and the frustrations of feeling forced to live up to the ideals espoused by the Waitrose cappuccino clasping classes are scattered like crumbs across the increasingly messy dining table. The poignant, tearful denouement was heart-rending, delivered with real gravitas and capturing the sacrifices that many women of that era made for their children, sometimes at the expense of their own mental and physical well-being.
There was a bit of unfortunate noise bleed which had the potential to derail some of the more emotive parts of the piece but the cast adapted very effectively to deal with that. The original play ran for considerably longer than this Fringe version but I wondered if a bit more editing might just tighten up the piece without in anyway diluting the powerful and emotional message it delivers so successfully. But these are trivia in what was an excellent hour of theatre that might even translate into a radio play – you can just see the boffins at BBC Radio 4 picking this up.
This is well worth getting up for. A 10am start for something as deep and occasionally dark as this might not sound the brightest way to start out your Fringe experience but it will get you thinking. Throw in all that good writing and the all-round good acting and here’s a theatre experience with a lot to recommend it.