Southwark Playhouse, London – until 28 October 2017
AFTER THE WARS WERE OVER… This is a lovely rediscovery, the kind of thing Two’s Company has repeatedly offered us in this enterprising theatre (we owe them those extraordinary WW1 plays “What the women did”, and the rare, fascinating “The Cutting Of The Cloth”).
This is a substantial, gently-moving play – 2 hrs 45 minutes – but in its meditation on life, attrition, middle-aged disappointment, family entanglements and memory it is as engrossing as Chekhov can be. But it is set nearer in time – 1953 – and closer to home: NC Hunter was a West End monarch in the age of Rattigan, and this ran for a year with Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike and Gielgud ( it was the play during whose run he was actually arrested for cottaging).
He was, like Rattigan and Coward and others, swept out of memory by the Angry Young Men and the Tynan-led revolt against anything involving a drawing room. But in its portrait of midlife, mid-century feelings and doubts and hopes it is fascinating. Some of its emotions are universal and perennial, others deeply rooted in that uneasy post-war time, and in villas like this, away from the city.
Twentieth-century history is an offstage but vital character. Laura (Susan Tracy), the widowed hostess and worried kindly matriarch, has flashes of pure anger at the statesmen who in her lifetime allowed ‘two immense wars and Europe bankrupt’. Julian her son (John Sackville), is a workaholic, primly. bespectacled and Brylcreemed middling civil servant in the FO. He seems a chill prig but passionately dreams of a tranquil world future, and burns at his dismissal from the Refugee Committee work in Paris. The sense of a world battered by war, searching for equilibrium, wanting to believe in something, is everywhere.
All the generations have their own struggle. Laura cares for ancient uncle David, nearing his end (a nicely cantankerous David Whitworth). Frances, who grew up there, is visiting with her children and her plain, sad shy nanny miss Matheson (Stephanie Willson). Alix Dunmore as Frances is wispy and sad, widowed by war then shamingly divorced: yet a fascinating portrait of female strength gradually asserting itself, even at its own cost. And in the authentic spirit of postwar compromise and muddle, the household is completed by David Acton as an alcoholic doctor who has – we slowly learn – lost everything and is hired to help old Uncle David. Acton is wonderful, in a wonderful part full of desperate jocose gaiety and banked-down anger at the crazy world: funny, moving, a vital source of the play’s energy, keeping it from mere melancholy. His comradeship with David Gooderson’s family lawyer – who also has a history of regret – is wonderful.
Tricia Thorns’ production is strongly paced, but what has to be remembered – and this applies also to this week’s Oscar Wilde north of the river – is that before TV ruined our attention span, stage plays though it no harm to start slowly, conversationally, almost banally, and work up slowly to their crises. Wilde seasons the wait with epigrams, rather too familiar now; but Hunter does not. So yes, at first it could feel slow.
But tough directors are right to eschew panicky cutting , and make us all damn well sit still as we would have in 1953, and let the characters grow into reality at their own pace. It is rewarding. It rises to strong, thrilling emotional scenes – some wholly unexpected, even for the seemingly drabbest. Nor is there a cosy last-act resolution, as some might fear in such a middle-British mid-century play. We do get the new moon moment at dusk (beautiful lighting all through, in Alex Market’s set of overlapping frames with old -ashioned photo corners ). But the balance of hope and resignation in the last act is pure Chekhov, and despite a lovely metaphor Hunter does not insult us with pat answers .
I am glad to have seen it. You have, I fear, only nine more days to do so.
BOX OFFICE 020 7407 0234 WWW.Southwarkplayhouse.co.uk