Red Peppers and Still Life
Landmark Theatre, Ilfracombe
Review: Eileen Roddy
STUDIO Theatre served up a potentially delightful double dish of Noel Coward for its Summer Sunday's series. Coward, who disliked the discipline of long theatre runs, wrote ten short plays originally known as the Tonight At 8.30 series for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. Studio Theatre performed two of these, Red Peppers and Still Life, both directed by Lee Baxendale.
Red Peppers is a light-hearted vehicle to show off Coward's clever banter, quick wit, perfect timing, and song and dance skills. This production made a valiant effort to replicate Coward and hit the mark a few times, but fluffed lines affected timing and some of Coward's intended humour was lost.
Still Life is a more challenging undertaking. It's rarely staged since it was expanded to become the 1940s film Brief Encounter and any modern-day performance risks being compared with this great classic.
The play, set in Milford Junction railway station during pre-war Britain, centres on middle-class suburban housewife Laura Jenson (Jo Wood) and Dr Alec Harvey (Tony Parker) whose chance meeting blossoms into an adulterous one-year affair. Coward turns the audience into bystanders of the developing angst-ridden intimacy. In an era of cell phones, texts and Twitter, it's hard for us to totally grasp why it's hard for the couple to break free from pre-war middle-class respectability and repression. We want them to get on with it instead of embracing the inevitability of their parting.
Secondary relationships between tearoom manager Mertyle Bagot (Su Scott-Goldstone) and stationmaster Albert Godby (Alan Bailey) employees Beryl Waters (Erica Woolgar) and Stanley (Jack Ferne) bring light relief. They are conducted with fun and a bit of slap and tickle, in stark contrast to Jenson and Harvey's ongoing rational dissection of their relationship.
Wood gives a delicate yet strong, moving performance as the emotionally repressed Laura, maintaining her pronounced middle class accent throughout, and adding poignant hand movements to convey the depth of her painful struggle. Parker also fulfils the role of the passionate Alec adequately.
Scott-Goldstone and Woolgar cleverly convey feelings with exaggerated movement, raised eye-brows, clicking heels, sweeping tea-towels, and long sighs. Jeanne Bennett portrays the right air of oblivion as Dolly Messiters, Laura's friend, who disrupts the lovers' final parting.
Overall a creditable performance by a talented cast and a reminder of how times have changed.