Chichester Festival Theatre – until 29 June 2019
David Hare’s Plenty, a story about post war disillusionment coupled with a woman – a nation – struggling to get back on its feet, caused considerable controversy when it first premiered 40 years ago.
It has opened in a revival at Chichester Festival Theatre that gives Rachael Stirling a gem of a part, teaches us a little about modern history, and even alludes to Brexit. But controversial? I think not.
Today, we’d recognise Susan Traherne’s downward spiral, post adrenalin-WWII rush, as being an unhappy mix of PTSD, bipolar and manic depression, rather than using the poor woman as a metaphor for a country’s demise. And, sure, Britain was in a stupor, both in 1945 and now as we battle poor economic growth and political uncertainty, but, both then, and today (we hope), it was short term. Certainly by the mid 1950s and ’60s – when Plenty ends – we’d never had it so good.
That can’t be said for Hare’s unbalanced, fragile heroine or the playwright’s jaded view of a Britain which has lost its way. We’ve seen it lately in the service personnel coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. They’ve spent a tour pumped up, living on fear, thrills and uncertainty, onto to return to civilian life, traumatised and broken.
Plenty dashes through the adult life of Susan Traherne, from a terrified teen volunteering to work under cover in France for the Special Operations Executive, to the druggy, sex-fuelled 1960s.
It opens in 1962 at a pivotal and decisive moment in her life when she’s on the cusp of walking out on her husband, Brock (Rory Keenan), who – and the audience are a bit late in registering him – is lying, bloodstained and completely naked on the floor (although I’m not sure why).
But we immediately flash back to the beginning. It’s 1943 and Stirling’s Traherne is standing in a field, in the dark, waiting for a plane drop, when she encounters an off-course British parachutist on a covert operation.
In just a few minutes we’re given a snapshot of how terrifying life must have been for the SOE operatives during the last days of the Second World War.
Plenty takes us on a whistle-stop tour through Traherne’s life, a story which also touches on key moments in Britain’s post-war development, great and small.
We move from the Suez Crisis to the opening of the Royal Festival Hall and the first negotiations for the country’s entry into the European Economic Community.
She encounters diplomat Raymond Brock and his boss, the ambassador, Sir Leonard Darwin, drifts from one job to another back in London, coldly plans to become a single parent, and eventually settles for married life with Brock.
But throughout it all there is despair and breakdowns, mental instability, restlessness and regret. It’s bleak.
Rory Keenan gives an outstanding and nuanced turn as her rock who confronts all her tantrums and outlandish behaviour with a steely resilience.
Susan is constantly outspoken and provocative yet such is her unpredictability that no-one takes any notice of what she has to say.
It’s impossible to feel any sympathy for this tortured soul and I’m baffled as to why the heroic, if under-achieving (and is it any wonder with a wife like her?) Brock, remains with her. She is determinedly unlovable.
As the timeline progresses we follow those on the periphery of Susan’s life – Darwin, her best friend, Alice, and even, albeit very briefly, the handsome stranger (Rupert Young, wasted in such a small part) who dropped in on her in that field in war-torn France.
Kate Hewitt’s production is over-directed in places, a little too tricksy, with its glass stage, video backcloth depicting Treherne’s tormented head, and the ever constant toing and froing of the company pushing about the props and set.
Yet there is superb support from under-used civil servants Anthony Calf and Nick Sampson, as Darwin and Sir Andrew Charleson, and Yolanda Kettle as best friend and bohemian, Alice.
But ultimately, all eyes are on Rachael Stirling, and she stylishly carries this story of disillusionment to its inevitable, if uncertain, conclusion.
Plenty runs in the Festival Theatre until June 29.
A full set of production photos can be found on Stage Review’s Facebook page HERE
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