NORTH ESSEX THEATRE GUILD
Group: Little Waltham Drama Group
Venue: Memorial Hall
Title: Enchanted April by Matthew Barber
Adjudication date: Fri April 29, 2011.
Adjudicator: Liz Mullen. Accompanied by Jenny Burke.
Always a treat to see a completely unfamiliar play, and we were impressed that director Mags had been chasing this one since her visit to Canada four years ago.
When a director wants so passionately to do a particular play, that passion rubs off on the whole production. I certainly felt a warm glow emanating from this one, helped along by the Italian sunshine!
Presumably Matthew Barber had stuck quite faithfully to Elizabeth von Arnim’s original novel when it came to plot and characters and, in many ways, the evening was indeed enchanting.
A very pretty and gently colourful programme and matching tickets were an artistic touch and the content informative.
As my companion and I settled down to study these, we were cheerfully plied with offers of interval refreshments and, as usual, the results were borne to us on a tray.
This royal treatment on the day of the Royal Wedding was appreciated.
Having been thoughtfully provided with a script in advance, I had already pictured the Italian holiday villa, so when the set was being very publicly changed in the interval, I was crestfallen to see just a black backdrop behind the terrace walls. Clearly my crest had fallen prematurely – at the last minute the dark tabs swept aside to reveal an astonishing scene.
Liz Willsher is clearly a true artist. Her view of a terrace, sweeping bay, beautiful trees, cliffs and sparkling sea was jaw-dropping in its scope and authenticity. The perspective was further aided by having the balustrade as a separate entity.
The later moonlight gobo changed the scene convincingly and the whole thing was a work of art that any professional venue would have admired.
The first act however DID use black tabs upstage, with the simple additions of hat racks, chairs, small tables, as suggested in the script to represent the ladies’ club and both their marital homes.
Having the church window gobo in the centre rang the changes easily, and although we felt the cast’s movements could occasionally also have been simplified in act one. With this minimalist setting, there was usually no need for a character to walk off and straight back on again.
As for props, these all looked comfortably in period.
In Act One, the colour palette for costumes was muted, relying largely on shades of black and brown. Lottie’s orangey-brown striped dress hinted at something hotter under the surface. The husbands were dressed conventionally smart, as you might expect from the 1920s, while wealthy Anthony Wilding was allowed a dash of bohemian red.
My companion Jenny made the point that in real life, our clothes are never co-ordinated with other people’s, but we accept that this was a deliberate choice to set the contrast for later and to show that Lottie and Rose (with their smart but sombre coats and cloche hats) could easily be mistaken for war widows.
The ultra-conventional and pompous Mrs Graves looked just that in Act One, though we felt the character had relaxed her dress style much too quickly at the start of Act Two.
Lady Caroline looked stunning in her first act satin robe and her second act peach silk dress, and her longish dark bob wig looked wonderful. In fact all the wigs hired for the production had been carefully chosen to look natural and in period. The fact that Rose and Lottie could literally “let their hair down” on holiday was dedlightful.
The Act Two costumes of Lottie and Rose were a lovely reflection of this leap into freedom, with nightgowns and frocks, which suited their changed circumstances.
Italian maid, Costanza, looked like a motherly Italian lady of her era would have done: plainly clad in dark colours despite the heat.
The costumes had all been selected with care and thought to look authentic for the period.
Make-up, especially the more obvious kind favoured by the beautiful Lady Caroline, was also good. Her vintage-shaped sunglasses were much admired.
LIGHTING & SOUND:
Very good work from the team. In the early scenes, the mood of the play was of constraint and wanting to break free. The lighting was in turn constrained and muted, with the church window gobo and spotlights to underline the story. The Act One tech effects of thunder, lightning and a loud train whistle (the latter almost a shriek, to bring the act to an expectant and dramatic close) were good.
In Act Two the sunny lighting for terrace and backdrop was splendid, and the moonlight effects, complete with gobo, very effective, even if at one point the hard-to-avoid shadows of the cast were thrown against the backcloth.
But we wondered if some tweeting birds and chirruping cicadas might have made us feel the sense of place even more keenly in Act Two. .
Lottie Wilton: Susan Butler was, rightly, the life and soul of this production. As the apparently repressed but in fact irrepressible Lottie, Susan’s face shone with joy, eagerness, and a determination to experience life away from the marital strait-jacket and the low expectations of her day. It’s possible that the play’s ability not to out-stay its welcome added to our enjoyment, for this bouncing Pollyanna of a 1920s wife might have worn a bit thin in due course.
Rose Arnott: Rose is initially uptight and horrified by Lottie’s vision of their friendship and destined holiday in Italy. Who wouldn’t be when confronted by such an impulsive and sensual woman, ahead of her time? But Rose slowly warms to Lottie and the sunshine does the rest. Victoria Rossiter seemed a little tentative on stage at first, but she grew into the role steadily as the evening went on.
Victoria made a good team with Susan, and with the rest of the cast. The combination of conventionality and passion was well conveyed.
Mellersh Wilton: In some ways, we would have liked to see Gordon MacSween cast as the more raffish husband – the author hiding behind his pen-name personality. He looked a little like D. H. Lawrence and would have suited the part. But as the strait-laced solicitor he was good value. Like everyone else, Mellersh learned a lot about himself and his wife in Italy and the scene with the dropped towel was played to good comic effect!
Frederick Arnott: Infatuated with Caroline but not as brave as he seemed, Frederick was played solidly by the likeable Brian Corrie. More could probably have been brought out of Brian to reveal the man’s personality.
Caroline Bramble: Kim Travell personified the dazzling and chic Lady Caroline, oozing style and privilege from every pore, yet not a stereotypical snob. Again, more could have been brought out of this character, in terms of a more gentle thawing of her nature and more chemistry with Wilding, but it was certainly an eye-catching bit of work.
Anthony Wilding: I’d have liked to see the director give a slightly more dangerous and sensual edge to this character. Ken Little played him with the cheery charm which comes easily to him. But there was little to ignite potential sparks in Caroline or to make Rose feel disappointed that she reminded Anthony of his mother.
Mrs Graves: Full of pomposity and bluster, and used to being obeyed at once, there was plenty of potential for humour here. June Franzen made her a very imposing character and the portrayal could have been perfect. However, I deed feel that she too softened too soon. More frostiness to begin with would have made the inevitable thaw all the more touching.
Costanza; Linda Burrow brought us plenty of laughs as the horrified, insulted maid who, like everyone else, eventually mellows.
Linda’s accent wasn’t totally convincing but she got the complex lines right, which may well have been a challenge. We considered that even more thought could have gone into the light and shade possible in this characterisation.
DIRECTION & SUMMARY:
Mags Simmonds deserves to take a bow for uncovering this odd but endearing piece. It can’t decide whether it’s a straight play or a romantic comedy, but it is diverting and the women in particular were strong, despite our mild misgivings about character development almost across the board.
The cues were sometimes taken up too slowly, and pace is so important. The men tended to be the main culprits in that. As mentioned earlier, we also felt that in Act One there was often no insurmountable reason for characters going on stage and on again, when they could have stayed and relocated themselves in the blackout.
It’s also an easy mistake in plays with a wonderful view upstage, that actors spend too much time admiring it while looking the wrong way – at us. Even “See the full moon” was said to the audience while the moon was behind.
The central actress gave a luminous performance, the costumes and wigs looked great, the backdrop was a work of art, the tech department gave a really good input and Lt Waltham should be proud. As should Mags. Thank you for a most unusual and refreshing evening’s entertainment.