FringeReview UK 2017
Quilter’s best known for Glorious! and End of the Rainbow. His output’s devoted to theatrical experience; his obsession’s fed into performative actors, mainly women. Peter Quilter’s 2014 The Actress comes to Brighton Little Theatre directed by Leigh Ward. The set, designed by Steven Adams, is spectacular even by recent standards. Beverley Grover’s lighting design here has to be masterly. Frankie Knight’s costumes (and as ever Patti Griffiths’ wig) answer best BLT superlatives.
Peter Quilter’s 2014 The Actress comes to Brighton Little Theatre directed by Leigh Ward. It’ll seem monotonous to those reading BLT reviews to hear praise heaped on constantly innovative sets. This one, designed by Steven Adams, constructed by all, is spectacular even so. A cerulean blue dressing room festooned with flowers and posters, dense with verismo, swings open its back wall, splitting into two wings on occasion to give on to smoky footlights – Beverley Grover’s lighting design here has to be masterly. Even a sofa moves mysteriously. Some pieces stage-left add to The Cherry Orchard, a classic we see in flashes. At non-Orchard moments the open stage reverses, actors face us. Frankie Knight’s costumes (and as ever Patti Griffiths’ wig) answer best BLT superlatives. But theatrical agent Harriet’s orange sunshine costume has to be seen. It’s terrifying.
Quilter’s best known for Glorious! and End of the Rainbow, both 2005. His output’s devoted to theatrical experience; his obsession’s fed into performative actors, mainly women.
Tess Gill’s Lydia Martin is retiring before – as she later movingly admits – her make-up can’t disguise her, nor memory loss. She’s almost eloping the next day with unsuitable old banker Charles to Switzerland. We get comedy in Act 1, Chekhovian pathos in Act 2. Everyone’s visiting her, regulated by Mimi Goddard’s Katherine, her dresser, so Charles ‘Her Elderly Fiancé’, daughter Nicole, Paul Nicole’s father, director-bedding-and-bidding Company Manager Margaret and of course her Agent crash in for kisses, curses, comfort and complaint.
Goddard plays Katherine as the frowsty epitome of ‘Sir’s Dresser Norman in Ronald Harwood’s masterpiece, indeed Quilter’s hommaging all over. Katherine predicts Lydia will forget her in two weeks, but there’s more to Lydia. Goddard’s mix of knowing mother-hen (with mother and daughter), suppressed melancholy and wry take anchors what sanity obtains on a ‘last-ever performance’ (really?) She grasps all the role offers.
Rosie Ross’s Nicole, lost herself, envying her mother’s directedness even if it’s ending; she distantly recalls Saffron from Ab Fab though articulates the plight of children with artistically-gifted absentee parents who rely on love-bombing when in the vicinity. Ross avoids petulance, elicits wit and humour, bouncing off Katharine.
However it’s Nicole’s father, Steven Adams’ Paul, whom she clearly misses too; you know what both characters desire. Lydia’s scissored through Paul’s rather lovely flowers – her nuanced response to each ex’s bouquet builds this up deliciously. Yet these stalks end up touchingly on her dressing room table with her consent. It’s clear the family’s gravitational pull falls back to the dressing room. What will Lydia do now? Stare at lakes and eat chocolate.
Adams’ suave Paul, all twinkling amusement, courts everything Gill throws at him; their spiked chemistry’s palpable. Paul arriving for slaps and kisses after a decade’s banishment is infuriatingly shrewd. He knows theatre business. Only when thrown out of their house he protests did he seduce every woman in Lydia’s Hamlet company. Ophelia ended up in Charlie’s Aunt Lydia informs him. He groans knowingly. It’s a play for those who get it, though generously obvious too. Adams plumbs beyond Paul’s knowingness to his understanding, and of course, love. Act 1 establishes smouldering attraction – that sofa’s well-used. The second sees what might as it were come of it.
Another knowing character scissoring Lydia’s last-night vanity, Margaret, insists on giving director’s notes from her lover. The absurdity of doing so at this stage in the run from an absentee director might need underlining, though such creatures exist. Lydia screws notes into balls. Margaret’s uptight mistress role simmers, finally explodes in Lyn Snowdon’s cleverly smouldering resentment after a vicious little incident: we feel from this performance she’s pushed into planning something.
Harriet’s distraught. Lydia’s her only real client, career and respect’s over. As we move through the second act Harriet’s love/hate for Lydia explodes in an alcohol-fuelled lament in orange. Suzanne Buist’s outstanding here, a tour-de-farce of implosion.
The Cherry Orchard’s not only fitting theatrically as we swing out into the stage-depth vistas, it adds similar perspective to the play. Quilter traces motifs from Chekhov allowing Act 2 in particular to acquire a patina of pathos. Lydia’s onstage persona’s joined by Adams and Gerry Wicks the erstwhile elderly lover as Lopakhin and Gayev respectively with Goddard’s back as Varya. It’s here genuine communion between Gill and Wicks takes place as siblings, not as ill-matched lovers, another subtle counterpointing to reality. Gradually the badinage and frolics of Act 1 fade – not entirely, Harriet’s and Margaret’s big scenes follow – but we’re in different territory.
First, Gill’s superb retiring speech where she attests her till-now need for applause as her motor, has evolved into just doing service the words for the first time. It’s a fresh take on what actors desire, the possibility of growth even at the end (notes, perhaps?). Gill’s by turns capricious, sexy, melancholically wise, tries mother-by-lightning-flashes, teeters into Older Actress, smoulders old desires and patently skitters over her superficial attachment to Charles The Elderly Fiancé so apostrophised by Quilter. Gill is, has to be, commanding. She inhabits Lydia, persuades us of depths, not shallows, even to tragic self-knowledge often shrouded. She also exemplifies comic looks and timing, whether snatching kisses or cigarettes, memorably getting Harriet to blow cigarette smoke on her face. Later she surrenders to the full stubbed Monty. Again Ab Fab’s distantly recalled but this work never overdoes that.
Gerry Wicks’ Charles is given wonderfully ungenerous things to visit on his person, his breathlessness after teetering up treacherous stairs (though it’s not him who crashes down), his mute pathos as Paul taunts him ‘If you’re not with us when I get back it’s been nice knowing you.’ In fact Charles’ latent steel and banker’s narrowness is as consummately brought out by Wicks as his preceding pathos.
As farewells and confrontations clatter downstairs we’re treated to the stage once more as a family conflab and surprising entry from a stage door concentrate what’s at stake. Quilter doesn’t allow obvious endings, or neat ones in this touchingly funny homage to theatrical living. But we get a clue in the final words. Unlike the fictional director, Ward and Assistant Director Sarah Leedham are as unobtrusive as they are empathic, letting the work breathe and quicken beautifully. With not a weak link, and extremely fine ensemble work, this production does as much for The Actress as any revival anywhere.