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FringeReview UK 2024

The Voice of the Turtle

Jermyn Street Theatre

Genre: American Theater, Comedy, Drama, Fringe Theatre, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre


Low Down

An actor rehearses Juliet, doing the washing-up in wartime; she thinks she’ll never get the chance to play her. Midsummer; it’s time for one of Jermyn Street Theatre’s revivals of Thirties/Forties gems. John Van Druten’s 1943 The Voice of the Turtle directed by Philip Wilson.

An exquisitely-faceted gem.


Written by John Van Druten and Directed by Philip Wilson, Designer Ruari Murchison, Costume Designer Anett Black, Lighting Chris McDonnell, Composer & Sound Designer Simon Slater,

Production Manager Lucy Mewis-McKerrow, Stage Manager Amos Clarke, Set Builder Tom Baum, Scenic artist Heather smith, Intimacy Co-ordinator Haruka Kuroda, Accent Coach Aundrea Fudge,

Production Technician Ted Walliker, Upholster William Edwards, Prints Archprints UK

PR David Burns, Photography Steve Gregson, Executive Producer David Doyle, Producer Gabriele Uboldi, Production Co-ordinator Conor Larkin

Till July 20th


An actor rehearses Juliet, doing the washing-up in wartime; she thinks she’ll never get the chance to play her. Midsummer; it’s time for one of Jermyn Street Theatre’s revivals of Thirties/Forties gems. John Van Druten’s 1943 The Voice of the Turtle directed by Philip Wilson.

British/American Van Druten’s best-known for his 1951 I Am a Camera, adaptating Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, which inspired Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret; in which one actor here, Nathan Ives-Moiba, has recently appeared. After his early death in 1957, at 56, Van Druten’s wispy reputation hangs on that. It’s unjust.

To frame it, think a shrink-fit Rattigan While the Sun Shines, written the same year. Though this is New York-based three-hander, one character is again an American serviceman and two women choose. It shares its ebullience, though in two-hours-ten turns frank, mixed with aching seriousness.

In mood and sensitivity, in daring to love yet hesitating to commit, Voice recalls a play famous at the time which Van Druten knew: Merton Hodge’s 1933 The Wind and the Rain, revived a year ago at Finborough. Particularly the lead character, Sally Middleton. All three dramatists had to hide their sexuality; the flinch of vulnerability is as authentic in Van Druten as it is in Hodge.

Ruari Murchison’s bijou of a set (built by Tom Baum, scenic artist Heather Smith) is deliriously toured as a huge pad by actor friends Sally Middleton (Imogen Elliott, making a stunning stage debut) and visiting worldly Olive Lashbrooke (Skye Hallam).

In truth it looks surprisingly spacious. Its double-bed and window at one end – daylight reveals brownstone opposite, Chris McDonnell’s lighting impeccable – yields a kitchen at the other; sofa and lamplit table central, There’s even a cupboard to hide in, two solid green doors and a “luxe” of food and drink.

Costume changes abound. Anett Black’ period creations, down to a cockatooish red hat flying off Olive, are unabashed brash. Though Sally’s emerald dress is kin to Edward Hopper’s world, reproduced in the programme.

These two young women enter in high spirits, frankly sloughing parentally-drilled sexual guilt; how many men counts as promiscuous. It’s adult, distinct, an advance sexually on most plays of the time.

Olive’s landed a part in Jack Kirkland’s Tobacco Road, akin to Grapes of Wrath and not Olive’s thing at all. Serious, aspiring Sally paradoxically might love it: every play she’s appeared in flops. She nurses a broken heart over a married theatre director. Olive counsels fun as Sally foreswears sex for the duration.

It’s one of the strongest scenes too, as successful older Olive awaits occasional lover Bill (Nathan Ives-Moiba). Then a call from a better offer has her drop him, feigning a recent husband when he arrives. Bill, stranded without a hotel, ends up spending the weekend with Sally, at first collapsed on her sofa.

This means most of the play is a two-hander with added Olive, and though I miss her ebullience, it’s astonishing for Van Druten to have enjoyed a Broadway hit for four years with mostly just two actors onstage. Though three-way moments are charged with comedy.

It helps Voice is alive with theatreland: parts awarded, house seats released as a favour. It helps Sally Bill knows who Nina and Juliet are, but she doesn’t know “that one talent which is death to hide” Bill quotes from Milton; nor the title’s quote, from the bible Bill informs her. Which Sally ripostes should never be given to children. Though Sally decries theatre as not real life, Bill defends it. He’s a dab hand with cooking and surprises of all kinds.

For the most part language is crisp, but at climactic points there might be an electric cattle-prod to administer to Bill if he declares “You’re sweet” just one more time; or explains Sally’s feelings to her. Though Sally scores with well-aimed hits at Bill’s mild sexual double-standards which he accepts.

The only fault then with this play is that in negotiating beautifully calibrated doubts and hurts – fanned by revenant Olive who takes in her (now) rejection and acts unpleasantly – Bill touches paternalism.

It’s kept at bay. When Bill apologises for “the beast in me” Sally counters simply with “there’s a beast in me too.” Rarely till The Deep Blue Sea has female sexual desire been as frankly, if lightly, touched on.  The final scene is reminiscent of the finale of David Hare’s Skylight: Bill sets surprise tablecloth and silver service with champagne. Even there though, things teeter.

There’s impeccable work equally touched in, from intimacy co-ordinator Haruka Kuroda, and accent coach Aundrea Fudge. But above all Sally’s favourite Londonderry Air, played on a period wireless, is transformed by composer and sound designer Simon Slater into a late 1950s rendering out of MJQ jamming with Miles Davis. It’s a heady creation, 15 years early, but who cares? It’s New York.

Elliott wins, breaks and mends your heart in a whisper and leap. Hers is a magnificent debut, making waves in an intimate space. Her moments of daring tremble on darting back. Ives-Moiba makes Bill’s ex-playboy warm, believable, sophisticated without rowing back on awkward lines. Bill’s smarting from a previous lover (both protagonists meet former loves on the same night in the same place) explains his equal fight/flight alacrity.

Hallam is refreshingly sympathetic. She’s given a less-Olive-she role for the plot’s sake latterly; there was another graceful way. But Hallam rises like a Bacchante and the result is a very different explosive bliss. An exquisitely-faceted gem.