Touring – reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich
Nicola Werenowska has certainly found fertile ground for the setting of her play: the decline of English seaside towns (in this case Clacton) from the first flashback to 1963 up to today. They suffer still from that decay: the rise of foreign package tours, the closure of a Butlins and the general disillusion with bucket-and-spade-b&b in our uncertain climate. Her designer Anna Kelsey has also found – and protects on a simple curtain – some very evocative images of these towns’ brighter past. At times you can almost taste the candyfloss and Kia-Ora.
The story, told partly in flashbacks, is about decisions on a failing boarding-house’s future by three generations of women: the doughty Val (Amanda Bellamy), her troubled nervy daughter Lisa (Clare Humphrey) and Lisa’s daughter Chloe. Who, we find, was largely raised by Granny Val and her drunken, disappointed husband whose end we only gradually learn, but suspect for quite a lot of the two-hour evening.
All three performances are fine, nuanced and credible, and Eleanor Jackson’s sulky, resentful Chloe is particularly good: a scowl to remember. The sense of mother and daughter competing for the child in the past is a strong thread. All that is on the side of the play, and I wanted to love it but despite Tony Casement’s direction and the neat little set, there is something woefully untheatrical about it: it might as well be a radio play.
Werenowska also lacks the comic lightness for which one yearns. Given a Val as skilful as Bellamy, playing a stubborn old pragmatist, one hungers for the salty seaside wit of her generation. But we never get it. There is a sense, notably from Clare Humphrey, of the sheer slog of running a b & b, and of the way the family all to some extent cling to it as part of their identity. But few lines stick, and few hit home, for all the cast’s efforts. Its themes will be recognized, though, in many of the places the tour visits.