Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London – until 24 March 2018
Guest reviewer: Melinda Haunton
Ian Grant’s new play is on an old theme: the impact of war(s) on families. Or is it the impact of love on relationships? Either way, After the Ball goes out of its way to show impact echoing down the generations.
The play’s fluid time-shifting moves back and forth through the marriage of William and Blanche Randall, a matter of nearly 60 years, focusing on the first and second World Wars and the later sixties. It demands a lot from its lead actors, switching between eras, and character ages with no trickery and few props to support the illusion.
In those roles, Stuart Fox and Julia Watson manage to lose decades and regain them with ease. Having them play twentysomethings brings neat ambivalence. Are William and Blanche living their lives for the first time, or are they reliving in memory? William’s increasing infirmity and confusion in time mirrors this uncertainty and compounds the time shifts. The simple, flexible set increases our sense of dislocation as objects change meaning and time with the characters. Nadia Papachronopoulou’s direction keeps the pace speedy, time shifts well signalled, and scenes melting into one another unnervingly.
The nine-character play is cast as a six-hander, for reasons which become apparent. The supporting cast does wonders, Emily Tucker and Jack Bennett sparky and enlivening in the recurring parts of family members, while Elizabeth Healey and Mark Carlisle bring neat characterisation to the smaller roles.
Their leavening is rather needed as the play rolls on. It becomes sorely apparent that William is a bore. It’s an unusual trait for a lead male and could be intriguing. But he’s given too much time to be boring and succeeds. A shame, he’s also an outright radical and gives us an alternative to standard wartime hero stories, with an internationalist, pacifist and suffragist approach even in 1914. But goodness, he undermines his idées fixes by banging on about them.
The writing as a whole has a tad too much of the Williams, both because he has the lion’s share of the lines, and in a more general tendency to repeat, make explicit and insert exposition. Some of this is useful in establishing where and when we are in the timeline, but it can be too textbook and prolonged. Sometimes, too, it misses the mark – what postwar bride was more worried about the cost of her trousseau than whether she had sufficient ration coupons to cover it? William’s droning insistence demands such audience pedantry. The programme suggests the play is about parental relationships, but I found this the least convincing of the themes – other relationships are far more affecting, and a sense of parental duty is more spoken than heartfelt. Perfunctory sex scenes, whether of assault or love, don’t exactly drag you into the moment. And for me, a last neat twist is too clever by half, losing its impact in the final curtain.
But the fascination of watching these characters move through time carries the narrative though and makes After the Ball well worth a look. There’s power in the echoes of small and large betrayals through the years. We uncover the sources of sorrow and bitterness, and it’s not always a gotcha twist – more often a sad slight, or a refusal to open up, which festers over time. Above all, the casting works. Seeing William and Blanche as the same people, in the same clothes, whether hopeful fiancés in 1914 or ageing into impotent unhappiness fifty years on, reminds us that times may change, but we are who we have always been. It’s a triumphant thought, and a tragic one. Either way, it is the message I will remember from this production.