White Bear Theatre, London – until 10 March 2018
Advice columns have often suggested lonely hearts should take up dog walking as a sure-fire way of finding romance. They may be barking up the wrong tree but love-sick mutts are suckers for a cute pooch. The ploy works wonders in Mark Giesser’s enchanting romance, The Lady With A Dog, adapted from Chekhov’s classic short story.
And how could it not? Two lonely people, trapped and bored in loveless marriages, meet over a fluffy, cute Pomeranian…. or, in this case, an imaginary, theatrical, one.
Giesser’s version transports his couple out of Chekhov’s Russia and, inexplicably, to North Berwick (almost as cold, but not quite Siberia). It is a long way to go for a mini-break in the 1920s. I think I’d have opted for sunny Torquay, not 400-odd miles away in Bonnie Scotland.
But air at the seaside resort proves quite intoxicating for London banker and serial womaniser, Damian Granville, and dog owner Anne Dennis. Anne has thrown herself into a deckchair to do a crossword while the invisible Pom sits at her feet. Granville, the rogue, who uses his holidays away from the wife and kids for casual affairs, spots his prey and zeroes in on his victim.
She is immediately attracted to him. But what neither of them expected was that their brief holiday romance would turn into true love, utterly frustrated by both having partners back home.
What starts out as a Brief Encounter-by-the-Sea becomes an all-consuming passion that neither can resist, and perhaps the moral of this is that we should all grab everything that life throws at us when, and as often, as we can.
Giesser has done a superb job with his adaptation, not only in the writing but in his innovative and deft direction.
While both Beth Burrows, effervescent as Anne, and Alan Turkington’s romantic hero, Damian, frequently talk in asides to the audience, they also have the benefit of talking to their spouses who are in the story both in body and spirit.
It’s beautifully done and plays with almost musical precision.
Burrows is a joy as the sparkling Anne who has fled her dull-as-dishwater husband, council clerk Carl (Duncan MacInnes) for a bit of me time with the dog.
What on earth possessed her to marry him in the first place?
Actually, Giesser’s decision to move the action to the 1920s is inspired. The country was still recovering from The Great War and no-one, not least our protagonists knew what the future held.
Carl (a lovely turn by MacInnes as the cuckolded hubby) may have started out a bit of a catch but his dismal war record (sent home with an eye infection) put paid to that.
Even so, she still went ahead with the marriage and, just two years later, deeply regrets it.
The pipe-smoking, tank-top-wearing dullard, whose only daily excitement is completing a crossword, bores her to tears.
Damian, considerably older than Anne, is stultified by a dull job and domestic “bliss.” Possibly he misses the excitement of battle. He uses his time away to prowl the resorts looking for women to bed.
He could come across as an old roué suffering a mid-life crisis but Turkington works hard to ensure that Damian is full of charm and charisma.
He’s every inch a Noël Coward romantic hero with matinee idol good looks and impeccable manners.
It is impossible not to feel for him when he realises that he has fallen hook, line and sinker for The Lady With A Dog, who he may never see again. Wretched, tortured and desperate, he can’t forget her.
His eminently practical wife, Elaine (Laura Glover) tends to treat him like a petulant schoolboy, allowing him his little indiscretions so long as he always returns home and provides for the family.
The Lady With A Dog is a wonderful love story about a couple finding love at the wrong time and is an indictment of the times in which it is set.
Poor Anne is horrified by her own wanton behaviour which would have been unthinkable in polite society.
I think her and Celia Johnson would have been best friends while Turkington is pure Trevor Howard.
A delightful production, performed with lightness and panache, that leaves you, unexpectedly and wonderfully, on tenterhooks.
The icing on the cake would have been a stage-trained Pom to melt the hearts of the hardest theatre-goers but I understand why the director opted for a pretend mutt. Far cheaper and less mess to clear up.
The Lady With A Dog plays at the White Bear Theatre until March 10.
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