Coronet Theatre, London – until 9 October 2021
Sometimes the building upstages the play. I had not explored the late-Victorian, half-restored glory of the Coronet before, and my first thought was that it may be impossible for any show to lure people out of its magnificent subterranean bar. But duty to the art must be done, Robert Holman is a veteran writer, it’s his newest play, and a great cast: would go a long way to see Sylvestra Le Touzel and indeed young Matthew Tennyson.
But it’s a rum one, this. As at the Hampstead last week we are dealing with sisters whose mother has just died, leaving a residue of old female resentments. Esther (Penny Downie) lives in Little Venice with Tennyson’s Jude, a half-companionable half-taciturn youth, who is probably a drug dealer. She rescued him like a stray cat when he was 12. Down from Harrogate in her old car comes sister Dolly, Le Touzel. Nicely costumed in no-nonsense Northern mumswear, she takes this moment to announce she has left Derek for good, the philandering beast. She is suspicious of Jude, yet jealous of Esther for this surrogate son (“I would have loved to wash boys’ clothes” she said, in a standout line of childless sadness).
But the pace is slowish, uneasy, some of the dialogue only just “off”, so it feels like a cheese-dream after reading too much Alan Bennett. Geraldine Alexander’s rather static direction in that long first scene had Dolly’s back to me for longer than is comfortable. Things improve as we discover this pair to be more entertainingly dysfunctional than they seem, since Esther admits to sex under a cherry tree with the groom on the eve of her sister’s wedding (Dolly’s response is that she plans to cut the tree down). Esther is slapped, forcing Jude to throw a glass of water over them, catfight-style.
After hasty stage rearrangement and some pebbles they all go together to Dungeness, though where more sisterly discord occurs with an even sharper revelation. Then Jude (on whom it is impossible to get a handle) reveals from behind a swimming towel that he too has a dark secret, viz. that he has had a play put on at the Royal Court. It’s about a boy who goes to Norway to track down his rock star grandfather…
Well, no more spoilering, let’s just say that I had an awful suspicion that Act 2 would be in Norway, so passed the interval in a confused wander round the foyer, enjoying how Coronet’s ramps up its artful attitude of disconnected Victorian strangeness with a creepy candlelit maiden-auntly decor of old chair backs, obsolete typewriter and hatstand with a mirror into which one might look and suddenly see someone quite different, betraying a dark secret about something bad that happened in Harrogate in 1955. See? this theatre is becoming part of the story, simply because the story is less like a gripping play than like a rather baggy novel.
Norway was indeed there after the interval, complete with the lovely Iniki Mariano in a sari, with more astonishing revelations. And just as you are wondering what the hell happened to the two senior ladies, they are back, reconciled, and the three principals end up by planting an oak tree onstage with admirably thorough trowelling , a full new sack of compost and many reflections in life, confidence, hope , love, and the point if any of the Christian religion.
It’s deftly performed, not unperceptive, but hard to accept as drama. Stretching in too many temporal, geographical and thematic directions at once, its elastic simply lacks twang.
box office thecoronettheatre.com to 9 oct