10 - Saturday 12 July 2008
13 July 2008
Oaks Elie Ball
Producer Jane Mayfield
Designer Matthew Stevens
Stage Managers Gaynor Bassey & Annie Duarte
Musical Director Bryan Pilkington
Choreographer Matthew Stevens
Lighting Moray Jones
Sound Kevin Josling
Alison Berryman & Matthew Stevens
Nowadays, professional actresses often call themselves `actors`, in the hope that the use of the masculine noun will indicate equality. Yet you couldn`t say that We Happy Few is a play for `actors`, written as it is by an actress, for a cast mainly of actresses, about a company of actresses. Indeed, its plot turns on the idea that actresses, false beards and all, can play Shakespeare as well as actors can.
In it, the all-female Artemis Players (based on the real-life Osiris Players), in their elderly Rolls-Royce, tour Shakespeare and other classics through World War Two Britain. They hope to help the war effort by raising morale, demonstrating the persistence of civilised values and changing people`s lives.
The play`s strengths include its nostalgic charm, a witty script, both funny and serious, and many opportunities for lively production numbers and individual turns. Matthew Stevens` production for the Hampstead Players exploited all these. He made the play his own, not only as director, but also as choreographer and designer, and even as a bit part player - certainly a Hampstead Players first. The inventiveness and verve of the production, the energy of the cast, and the sheer quality of the best of the performances carried us through, so that its two-and-a-half hours (cut from an original three) slipped easily by.
At the centre of the action is Hetty Oaks, founder and director of Artemis, whose outer toughness hides an inner loneliness. Elie Ball`s Hetty had a calm, persistent strength, while her vulnerability, revealing itself at the end, came over most movingly. Her collaborator, the enthusiastic, long-suffering Flora Pelmet (`I`m afraid this place is a stranger to Vim`), always ready with a self-deprecating `mea culpa`, was beautifully played by Nina Trebilcock. And Jo Siddall, as Ivy the maid, who discovers both a talent for singing and the love of a good man, was lovely, her offhand Brummie accent and domestic clumsiness blossoming into song and dance routines worthy almost of Ginger Rogers.
The other female parts, more sketchily drawn, still allowed the cast to make the most of some good lines and situations. Outstanding was Patrice Dorling for her endearing Jocelyn. Whether funny or serious, her expressiveness and timing were exemplary. Her party-piece of `Only God can make a Tree` was delightfully awful, and her audition scene, for which she had prepared Titus Andronicus, had a lovely throw-away line: `I`ve brought my own pie`.
Williams was a lively Rosalind, a bright-eyed, aspiring RADA student, trying
to escape the dominance of Helen, her resentful, alcoholic, grand actress
mother, played with an appropriate sense of self-absorption by Vivienne Becker.
Helen`s waspish judgement on the Artemis company is that `it`s like a nunnery
on wheels`. Rosalind unexpectedly finds love (sensationally for the 1940s)
with the practical `Charlie`, played in an appropriately matter-of-fact way
by Jane Mayfield. Rosalind admires Charlie for her `grittiness`. `You are
working class aren`t you?` she asks hopefully. Among several parts played
with calm assurance by Sarah Eynstone, the highlight was an auditionee doing
Jacques in the style of Fred Astaire. And the Jewish refugee Gertrude Rosenbaum,
who dramatically delivers Ivy`s child, and achieves her own apotheosis by
showing it her love, was convincingly played - in German - by Annie Duarte.
`Shakespeare is right up there with P G Wodehouse`, says Jocelyn generously at one point. In fact, though Ms Stubbs enjoys Shakespearean in-jokes - as when Lady Macbeth has to put on gloves because she can`t get the Kensington Gore to wash off - she also takes him seriously. The Artemis performance of Macbeth begins farcically, like a cross between `Pyramus and Thisbe` and Noises Off, but ends sincerely. And We Happy Few itself culminates, come VE Day, in a performance of Crispin Crispian from Henry V (giving the play its title), which movingly shows us the vulnerable side of Hetty, and the loyal esprit-de-corps of the company, as well as celebrating Victory.
I couldn`t help wondering how far its patriotism is a convenient theatrical shorthand for what Ms Stubbs takes to be people`s general sentiments during World War Two. This and other situations in the play are often a bit too pat, too neatly resolved, a fact which, one gathers, she cheerfully admits. An untidier, less sentimental view of the War might have given greater value to these women`s achievements against all the odds. In these more portentous areas the play is at its weakest but, conversely, it is strongest when it is being overtly entertaining. And this is where the Hampstead Players really scored.
The basic story, as told through the witty dialogue, was set in a rapidly changing context of location shifts, rearrangements of the set (composed mainly of a collection of old suitcases - items which figure very largely in my own Wartime memories), song and dance routines (such as the lively `Everybody sing` sequence) and vocal numbers, both solo and choral, much of it the work of Bryan Pilkington as music director and sound designer. Add to this a lovely, authentic-looking wardrobe by Alison Berryman, and numerous costume changes. The audience never knew what would happen next and, to judge from its very enthusiastic response at the two performances I saw, loved it.
researches into reminiscences and scrap-books, and the play`s own beginning
and end in a ghostly lumber-room piled with old props and costumes, perhaps
give the best clue to the nature of We Happy Few. It is essentially a loose
assemblage of not-too-profound ideas about the War, about acting, about Shakespeare,
about love, life and death, and about women`s roles in all these. The Hampstead
Players showed that if these are given an inventive, lively and sometimes
virtuoso treatment, they add up to a great entertainment for outdoors on a
fine day (or, resourcefully enough, indoors on a wet one). And that`s what
a summer production is all about.
This review appeared in the Hampstead Parish Church Magazine.