Then, of course, there is the hoary old problem of the Young Vic’s unreserved seating policy which always raises Phil’s hackles. And what with the last outing to the Young Vic being the ultra-disappointing Vernon God Little, what could possibly persuade Phil to visit the very limits of the off-West End to patronise a theatre that resembles a cheese grater?
Well, Andrew could of course, applying his usual technique of thumb screws, water torture (the promise that wine would not flow), the bonus of meeting Sue Knox for the first time (again. More on that later) and the lead role being taken by an American actress who goes by the name of Portia. Yes, you read that correctly – like Lulu, Cher, Bono, Sting and Viva, is known by a single moniker. Even Andrew is not that affected – he signs everything “Andrew R.” in the manner of Elizabeth R.
And how inspirational Portia proved to be. So inspiring that the Whingers have decided to drop their rather prosaic names and from now on the artists formerly known as Andrew and Phil will be passing themselves off respectively as Ophelia and Desdemona.
It didn’t start promisingly, but then evenings at the Young Vic rarely do due to its eccentric seating arrangement. This production opted for the “theatre on two sides of a square” layout and as only the front row had the requisite three seats available, it was necessary to throw a coin to decide which side would be most rewarding – kitchen or arbour.
The Whingers opted for the former which turned out to be the right choice, although the kitchen table did obscure the most of the characters from the neck down. But we’re being picky: Robert Innes Hopkins‘ set is large in scale and precise in detail, although curiously under-dressed. Ophelia found himself flicking through his mental recipe book wondering what he could possibly rustle up for a wedding party from the four storage jars and using three saucepans.
Ah, yes, wedding. Carson McCullers’ hit 1950 play is set in the summer of 1945 in a small town in Georgia. Hyperactive 12 year old tomboy Frankie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) spends much of her days in the kitchen of her home with the black maid Berenice (Portia) and her seven year old cousin John Henry (Theo Stevenson on this particular night). Her brother is about to get married and Frankie’s plan is to hitch herself to the happy couple and live with them to escape her friendless life.
Despite a cast of 13, 90% of the action revolves involves these three, which is a demanding requirement for a two-and-a-half hour play. The emotional and dramatic centre of the play is Berenice and – for once – the hype is real. Portia puts in an astonishing performance – when she is required to take centre of stage (figuratively) she seizes the audience in the palms of her hands but she provides support and much-needed weight to her scenes with the children. In her big scene she produces real tears – almost as much water as in the marvellous storm scene (incidentally, the water design is dedicated to Robert Innes Hopkins by Waterist according to the programme).Flora Spencer-Longhurst looks utterly compelling, although it’s pretty thankless to be tasked with playing an irritating and immature adolescent and perhaps there was rather too much hand-clenched arm waving. Nevertheless, it was a great performance and Desdeomona found her incessant whining and petulance quite as convincing as Ophelia’s.
Did the Whingers suggest that Portia steals the show? Well almost. Underlining the cliche “never to work with animals and children”, Portia gets a run for her money from little Theo Stevenson who is a quite remarkable find. The boy acts like he was born to it, and not only can he do a reasonable America accent but also manages a stage tumble, gets excited about “show costumes”, carries Frankie’s discarded doll around and dons fairy wings and a dress. No wonder Desdemona was swished back to his own childhood.
Desdemona – who now has his “food on stage” thesis back on track – got himself into a right old state of excitement. He could actually smell the food being cooked off stage before it was produced. It may have only been peas and mash but this stuff was freshly cooked. Later came sandwiches, cookies and a wedding cake, though he thinks that unlike the one in The Hothouse this was probably fake.
But plaudits all round. To Paul Arditti for the wonderful sound (once the play settles down – music from the club next door and Berenice pottering around on the stove drown out anything else). Realism is the watchword of director Matthew Dunster‘s and designer Robert Innes Hopkins production and Arditti colours it all in (metaphorically speaking) beautifully with barking dogs, crickets, the off-stage party, the ticking clock (which is probably the key to the play but we’re getting out of our depth there). And get this: when Berenice turns on the gas in the Wedgewood range, you hear the gas; when she lights it, you hear the “whump”.
The sound combines with excellent lighting Philip Gladwell (never has dusk fallen so imperceptibly in a theatre that the Whingers can recall) during a highly convincing thunder and lightning storm. So convincing in fact that when Frankie jumps onto Berenice’s lap for comfort Desdemona was worried that Ophelia might follow suit.
It was, in summary, a quite extraordinarily high quality evening marred only by a sneezing fit from Desdemona. The diverse elements of a production rarely come together as perfectly as this.
- Desdemona was astonished to hear the nigger “w” on stage for the second time in a few days.
- The part of John Henry was originally played on Broadway by none other than Brandon De Wilde (Joey in Shane) – that’s him on the cover of Life magazine in 1952. De Wilde died at the age of 30.
- The Whingers had very entertaining pre- and post-drinks with Sue Knox who regular readers will remember as the winner of Phil’s underpants in the raffle at the West End Whingers party earlier this year. The Whingers didn’t remember, of course. How embarrassing.