FringeReview UK 2016
Directed by Sandra Tomlinson, this production by Lewes Little Theatre brings another of its great strands – American classics – to life with another superbly naturalistic set designed by Dudley Ward and team.
This production by Lewes Little Theatre brings another of its great strands – American classics – to life. Directed by Sandra Tomlinson, with another superbly naturalistic set designed by Dudley Ward and team, David Morley leads a strong cast.
It’s late August 1947 and Joe and Kate Keller examine the storm-snapped tree planted in memory of their eldest pilot son Larry who vanished nearly four years earlier. Kate’s paradoxically pleased: she never believed Larry was dead and here comes daffy Frank Lubey (Steve Mallen) with a literally star turn casting a horoscope for Kate, later proving that since Jupiter was in the ascendant, Larry must be alive.
This is difficult for their second son Chris, another war veteran whose view of the world’s also been skewed. He and Ann Deever, Larry’s one-time fiancé, are in love, wishing to marry. Kate will have none of it whenever she finds out.
Even more riven for Ann is the conviction of her father, Joe’s ex-partner for allowing cracked cylinder heads to be sent to an importunate army procurement. Twenty-one P40 pilots died and though Joe too was jailed it was his partner who was convicted and neither Ann nor her brother George have spoken to their father since, who’s languishing in prison. All that’s about to change.
There’s sharp contribution from the brighter couple who bought the Deever house next door: idealistic clever doctor Jim Bayliss (finely judged Mark Pelham) and his shrewish ex-nurse wife Sue (India Whitehouse, a vixenish skirl of a performance). They divine more than they let on and Sue lets Ann know that Chris’s idealism is poisoning her husband – he’d already run off for two months to research before she claimed him back: marry Chris and never come back, she tells Ann. There’s also tension in that Lydia Lubey already with three children should have married Ann’s brother, the far smarter George, but he didn’t act quickly, and when he arrives an prematurely embittered lawyer, a touching colloquy with Lydia edges his loss.
But it’s what he’s discovered, that Joe, not his father is truly guilty that mines the denouement as Chris struggles to come to terms with this. Jim Bayliss talks of the light of a man’s truth going out as it is now with Chris, already has with him. That however, isn’t the most devastating discovery. Everyone, even Kate knew but Chris and George Deever. What no-one knows and which Ann finally presents is a final letter from Larry – from the night before his last flight. He knew: wider knowledge of his action springs the denouement.
David Morley perfectly captures the Bronx accent of Joe’s origins, magnificently convincing as a towering but doting paterfamilias whose hutzpah crumbles into the realisation that not just his son Larry, but the twenty-one pilots were ‘all my sons’. Self-knowledge strips back from his eyelids. It’s a devastating, unflinching moment; Morley rises to it with anguish and lamenting.
The gentler accent of Jenny Lloyd Lions who with her own steel holds off death and guilt with both hands – but like Samson shaking two pillars – and only finally collapses, holds a clarion note throughout. Lloyd Lions inhabits the silken power behind Joe’s beacon of industry, who melts even judgmental George into sitting and drinking.
Rangy James Meikle is ideally cast as idealistic Chris, a second son living in the shadow of family and brother, who has to be cajoled to kiss Ann properly, as she points out. Army-quick to act, ultimately upstanding, his journey is that of niggling doubts repressed; Meikle despite his war experiences still believes.
Only Ann can help. Melodie Gibson nuances someone who knows Larry’s judgement though not certain till now of its truth. She portrays Ann’s own quiet steel. Ann’s moved on, determined to take Chris with her.
There’s a fine cameo from Steve Malen as hapless Frank Lubey whose laboured horoscope unwittingly gets it right in a twist of Miller’s detail: Jupiter ascending betokens not just good luck but unflinching judgement, law. This is exactly what determined Larry’s actions. Eve Costello’s warm more intelligent Lydia Lubey shows George what he – and she – have lost. Louis Mallen-Curtis has the height though not age for George, managing to retain the demeanour of a prematurely embittered lawyer. There’s an enchantingly blocked whoop of a turn from Sebastian Wojtulewski as child Bert.
Sandra Tomlinson’s deft, swift-paced but contemplative direction means every point ratchets home its inexorable tread but then moves on to the next. This production has pulled off another superb, end-of-season Americana for this remarkable theatre, where the ending took the audience by a gasp of surprise.