Brighton Year-Round 2020
Directed by Ian Amos (A Visit From Miss Prothero), David Villiers (Afterplay). Stage Manager Paul Charlton, Set Design and Construction Steven Adams, Costumes and Properties (Miss Prothero) Glenys Stuart, Costumes (Afterplay) David Villiers, Cast and Crew. Lighting Design and Lighting and Sound Operation Beverley Grover, Sound Design (Miss Prothero) Ian Amos. Make-Up Design David Villiers. Photography Miles Davies. Till December 12th.
Brighton Little Theatre is officially back, with its Covid-Secure environment and already its second production of this bleak season, delayed a month from November. Even given bLT’s standards, it’s a stunner.
Often Alan Bennett shorts get paired with.. Alan Bennett shorts. So it was an inspired fit to contrast A Visit From Miss Prothero, with one of Brian Friel’s few shorter works Afterplay. Both are two-handers, and both introduce a character the other has seen or known before, but in a sense they haven’t.
A Visit From Miss Prothero
Directed by Ian Amos A Visit From Miss Prothero – originally a 1978 TV play – stars the sedentary Arthur Dodsworth (Mike Skinner) long widowed but joyously retired with his budgie after four months away from the firm he guided over forty years. Thirty years ago he revolutionized the firm with his docketings and filings, now they can get on with it. With new interests, hobbies, people, life’s blossoming again. The last thing he wants is a visit from the proverbial blast. Liz Gibson’s Miss Prothero is hardly a charmer, wanting to re-open old triumphs to show they’re scars.
Peggy Prothero’s permanently embittered, shredding small reputations, single motherhood, dress code and the wondrous new boss Mr Skinner who’s formalised and frosted everything. No first, names, no short skirts. And not a stitch of Mr Dodsworth either. ‘I rang twice’ Prothero announces to discomfit the already alacritous Dodsworth. It’s as if he’s being told how badly he failed the works interview he gave over forty years back.
And work’s all that matters to Prothero. These new hobbies – pottery, cooking, music – are mere escapism. As are novels. She’s changed her extension number and asks him to guess where. Warburtons is everything to her and she wants to rub Dodsworth’s nose in the fact that he means nothing to it. Prothero demands he guess the age of an attractive woman. As for herself she says of her parents: ‘Over forty-two years of marriage day by day inch by inch, smiling and smiling in the sight of the whole world, gently and politely with every appearance of kindness, he killed her.’ No wonder she hates Dodsworth’s fond memories of the institution.
Steven Adams’ versatile set featured carpet, armchairs and budgie cage and a backdrop including the late Mrs Dodsworth, a sitting room up north in 1978. It’s also easily removable for an even sparser set after. Properties for this play – and the devastatingly faded costumes are provided by Glenys Stuart, that just-about-threadbare-but-coping air suffusing Adams’ arrangement. Amos provides the soundscape of easy listening and budgie cries, Berverly Grover lights up the bleakness bleakly.
Bennett’s genius is to invert the given of a someone who can’t let go visited by an old colleague who through making them revisit, releases them: happily or unhappily. Here Mr Dodsworth’s all too happily – for Miss Prothero – let go, moved on, content to leave his life’s work as witness to saving the firm. She it seems wants to make him feel back to his old identity, and then smash it in his face. Does Prothero merely wish to spread her misery round or is it even more personal? And how can Dodsworth rally? His only ally now is his budgie. In a cage.
Skinner as the anti-Skinner (or Warburtons) is chock-full of northern hesitations, an incipient stammer born of shyness and a register of reproach or self-defence that’s almost entirely missing. Skinner makes us believe everything about the details-obsessed old clerk with his statuary one idea is placatory, happy to renew and jump the usual abyss. Until someone cuts the bridge ropes. Gibson’s relentless Prothero is superbly coiled, waiting to anticipate and out-speak Sinner’s gentleness so we’re continually in a state of ambush. Gibson’s wickedly good at being cruel. Her register too has to be narrow, though sharp, and her kicks and flicks and vocal retractions that bit keener because of Prothero’s venturi tube of venom. This is consummate, faultless and ultimately in Skinner’s final moments heartbreaking.
Though Ian Rickson’s definitive Uncle Vanya featured the Sonya of the year, she’s flanked by two wondrous older Sonyas in two outstanding productions of Friel’s 2002 Afterplay, premiered by John Hurt and Penelope Wilton at the Gate. The first was the heartrending Coronet production seen as in a pleasure dome cubed in restaurant ice in March, just before lockdown. The other is before us.
Set in the early 1920s and featuring Sonya from Vanya, Andrey from Three Sisters, Friel’s pun on 18th century afterpieces, foreplay and of course after the two Chekhov plays that give it the characters here, is a Russian doll of dissimulation and heartbreak.
Again Steven Adams performs a small miracle in white wrought-iron chairs and a bare table evoking a similar Moscow to that previous production.Grover’s lighting glitters with the opalescence of winter and fades like early dusk. David Villiers and the cast produce immaculate period costumes, and Villiers again applies make-up in wigs and – is that Russian beard real? – in O’Connor. Looks are just part of this gem of a production.
After a final speech from Sonya – that Sonya – the pitch of Brian Friel’s Afterplay rises to more than a touch of sublimity. As godfather to Chekhov characters – less than a parent, more than a foster-parent he states – Friel’s scrupulous about where his two characters come from: so where they might go.
Andrey porting an instrument case tells Sonya he’s a desk violinist rehearsing La Boehme with a strict Munich conductor. Sonya’s grappling with a spread of estate accounts under advice from the Ministry of Agriculture. You can hear the rev of farm equipment as she marks off what she’s been told to plant: trees. That takes her back.
Though punning on those 18th century Afterpieces and foreplay, this is no slight entertainment. Uncle Vanya’s Sonya (Emmie Spencer) is joined in a café for two nights by Ciaran O’Connor’s Andrey, hapless brother of Three Sisters.
So Afterplay for one hour finds two people nearly twenty years on from where we last saw them. They’re now struggling in an early Soviet Russia, an air no Chekhov character breathed till now. Andrey slurps up cabbage soup and offers fresh-because-brown bread (no, Sonya doesn’t get it either), but Sonya’s not so open: surreptitiously swigs a bottle of vodka, or splashes it into cold tea.
Andrey seems more agile now – in fact quite an improviser though he can’t recall when his cuckolding wife died. Sonya’s even lonelier since Uncle Vanya died 19 years back. Revealingly she names the day: September 9th. Whilst Sonya conceals feelings and an incipient alcoholism you’d not have predicted, Andrey, now sober turns out a bit drunk over facts.
His wife’s not ‘about’ seventeen years dead as he first claims, but abandoned their children to Andrey. Chekhov hinted the daughter Sophie isn’t Andrey’s, though Friel elides that. Andrey embroiders their lives for a while till he doesn’t. The fate of Bobik the eldest, is why Andrey commutes to Moscow. No, Bobik’s not a doctor, gave up after a year. And about Andrey’s sister Masha’s fate you feel he’s stone sober. ‘Their life in Tagnarog is a sort of protracted waiting time for the real life that has still to happen… that their authentic life is available here, in the Moscow of their childhood.’ Moscow’s sacred for the sisters, but for Andrey perhaps it’s them.
Directed by Villiers, every detail absorbs, and Chekhov’s gently-stuck characters – who stoicize despair while grasping at new life – emerge at their own pace. There’s pauses, never longeurs. Dead centre to this receding set there’s a table where Andrey angles to be invited to sit with spreadsheet Sonya. Stage right there’s an exit, also useful for bouts of nerves and faux-retreats. Shostakovich’s famed Waltz from his Jazz Suite No. 2 fades in.
Sonya comes clean with a polished-off vodka bottle between them, slow-rending her love for ‘Michael’, Dr Astrov, bonding over Vanya’s death-bed: ‘A man with a vision; and close to saintliness; and not always sober.’ Now married if distantly to beautiful Paris-shop-hungry heartless Yelena, Astrov visits when he’s been drinking. You feel Sonya’s taken to the bottle after sympathy bouts with him.
You might pick Friel’s recreations apart. Sonya and Andrey at first pick up the threads of yesterday evening’s confidings, though Sonya at first half-forgets Andrey’s existence. So why do things converge tonight? The warm-up dynamics of yesterday need more of a hint.
Here, the late ramping-up of Andrey’s feelings seem more prepared-for than in the Coronet production, partly down to O’Connor’s masterly way with pauses and comic timing. Spencer’s responses, initiatives and furtive rallies are equally touching and comic, then aching with regret.
This production is then notably funnier than its recent predecessor and plays shamelessly for laughs earlier on. Should it? Who cares. With the quality of writing elsewhere, and these actors, it’s easy to accept the larger truths of Afterplay.
O’Connor’s Andrey even frolicking with truth seems more solid than his pathetic original: and O’Connor looks uncannily like Chekhov himself. Andrey’s creative self-deception and weakness harden to deceiving others – in a virtuoso set of violin cadenzas, figuratively speaking; till he relents, when O’Connor conveys threadbare stoicism and dogged courage.
Spencer’s still-youthful Sonya exudes a playful, almost girlish warmth Friel declines to alter. Though now there’s a sly truthfulness and beneath the matte carapace of a Soviet hair-bun a passion more explosive for its tending over twenty years. Spencer suggests gnarled nobility rippling her youth. Both she and O’Connor show the cost of period restraint, even over a moment that comes straight out of The Cherry Orchard; with a saving twist.
Sonya’s final speech sheers off all the patina of early-Soviet coping to that ‘bleak tundra of aloneness that stretches before me’ and it’s heart-stopping. Spencer here rises to the greatest pitch I’ve seen even from her – even in The Deep Blue Sea and elsewhere; and she’s supported completely by O’Connor. The final speech is hers alone. For a long time I was glad I couldn’t leave my seat. The production in March was outstanding but this…
Friel’s genius is to catch both what’s apparently changed against the grain of what hasn’t. The way both these characters have got to Moscow, have turned round their lives to a bitter coping, signals a flutter of hope. Andrey’s unravelling truths and Sonya’s Vanya-echoing speech at the end shows their DNA hasn’t caught up with this. Even so, Friel leaves a final act of Andrey’s – however hopeless – as possible salvation: writing.
Friel’s miraculously-attuned idiom brings truths his model would surely applaud: a wafer-thin but absolutely genuine slice of Chekhov.
In both performances, we see BLT at their exquisite best. Forget seasonal consolation. If you see one production, see this.