The (necessary) drive towards digital theatre has thrown up a number of interesting approaches. These have included filming live onstage with or without an audience and streaming the result either in real time or at a later date, creating specific filmed versions of plays making use of either real or constructed backgrounds, audio plays sometimes with visual elements, readings on Zoom and interactive experiences. There have also been a number of hybridised shows which have made use of various elements of the above. However, in what I think may be a first, Original Theatre Company has released a filmed-as-live, onstage rehearsed reading in the shape of A Cold Supper Behind Harrods.
This drama started life as a radio play back in 2012 when it was directed by Philip Franks who has now helmed several productions for OTC over the last 18 months. He has reassembled his three principal cast members from that production and added some interesting visual elements to the script by David Morley. And what a cast – David Jason, Stephanie Cole and Anton Lesser would, I’m guessing, normally have a good deal on which might prevent them being brought together – so that’s one benefit of Covid.
Having played the parts before they clearly are going to know what they are doing, though in the post show Q and A Lesser confesses he cannot remember being in the play before. In any case, their collective years of expertise would be bound to see them through and, even though there are the occasional word fumbles and Cole completely loses her place in the script at one point this scarcely diminishes this well made play which sets up an intriguing premise and then twists in directions that defy expectation.
Jason, Cole and Lesser play three wartime colleagues apparently brought together by a TV production company to reminisce about the parts they played in the conflict in the Special Operations Executive. The TV filming takes place off stage and we are left to eavesdrop on the “green room” conversations of the trio as they await their respective turns in front of the camera.
Lesser is Leo Marks son of one of the famous store founders and code breaker extraordinaire while Cole is Vera Atkins who functioned as the right hand adviser/assistant to one of SOE’s leading lights. Both of these were real people. Jason’s is more of a composite fictional figure, a key operative John Harrison who went behind enemy lines. All, for various reasons, remember a dead colleague Patricia whose evoked memory starts to materialise though this certainly isn’t a ghost story. As the shadows start to lengthen what really happened to the dead girl starts to emerge and the part that each of the three of them played in her death comes to light. One of the trio is far more guilty than the other two and soon we are in the realms of wartime double dealing and betrayal of one’s comrades. To say more would compromise the storyline so….
It’s great to see three actors of advancing years almost spontaneously bring a play to life – there were only a couple of days for rehearsal apparently before they recorded live at Oxford Playhouse. And one of the most fascinating aspects of this video was the half hour Q and A which follows where the actors reflect on the experience and are joined by Franks and Morley who all give great insight into their craft. You will particularly like Franks’ explanation of how his job consists of helping the actors to “dig up potatoes”. It’s also a treat after his many and varied TV appearances to see David Jason back on stage (I wonder when the last time was that happened) in a role that often plays against type, and which shows what a loss he was to theatre work. On the face of it listening to actors reading a script should be rather tedious but this was anything but – perhaps we’ve got used to it through the proliferation of Zoom plays where it happens even if you can’t see the script. I wonder if it is an experiment which OTC will consider repeating; I think they should certainly do so.