Richard Everett’s play, which premiered at Chichester in 2006, is set in the garden of a rural English vicarage. It focuses on Grace, recently-bereaved widow of the local vicar, episodically revealing her relationships with her daughter, older sister, her husband’s successor and, indeed, her late husband. Every part offers something of interest to actors and audience alike.
Some first nights are as accomplished as mid-run performances; others fall a little short; some feel as though cast and company need to get a public performance out of the way so that the production can find its self-confidence and flourish; and finally there are the – mercifully rare – disasters or near disaster. This one meandered between the two middle categories.
Director Steve Hawker, with co-designer Richard Harker, presents us with an unfussy, effective set, neatly laid out, complete with lean-to greenhouse, part of the vicarage itself and clearly defined areas, notably the rock-bordered suggestion of a stream. He moves and positions his cast well, some effective tableaux reflecting the various inter-relationships. Transitions between sub-scenes are smoothly indicated by effective lighting changes, all areas of the stage being well-served in this respect.
As Grace’s daughter, Jo, Dawn Hollington gives the production’s most consistently successful performance, at ease vocally and physically, natural in a sympathetic characterisation. When she is on stage, sharp on cues and delivery, interest increases and seemingly helps others lift their performances. As her father, Bardy, seen in flashback and through his widow’s imagination, Mike Andrews, albeit ably if briefly supported by an eloquent trowel, moves gently and engagingly through the play, no clichéd spectre but spirit (re-)made flesh so that we are left in no doubt as to his earthly persona. Similarly, as Grace’s older sister, despite the relative ages, Nikki Wilson, in just her second appearance with the group, grows in confidence (and will, I’m sure, build further on this) in what becomes a more complex part than at first appears to be the case.
The central role was originated by Penelope Keith so, to an extent, one knows what sort of character to expect. It’s all there in the writing of a play that is often witty, albeit amid more serious concerns. However, Christine Hughes and/or director Steve Hawker opt for a very subdued, often rather glumly, mumbled characterisation, impacting negatively on our engagement with Grace and the inter-play between characters. It’s a sizeable role to learn and the actress has done well in this respect but, while any attempted imitation of Penelope Keith is definitely not what is wanted, the character cries out to be played with greater attack, assertiveness and presence: it needs a more vibrant, wounded but resolute depiction. Moves and gestures too could look more natural to the character. As with the production generally, greater boldness, perhaps self-assurance, and certainly energy can, in remaining performances, realise the potential that I’m sure is there. Lines such as, “At least I’m interesting,” and “I’m not being overbearing, am I?” must be delivered within a performance that gives the audience reason to understand how they could arise. Go for it – and “own” that stage!
Seemingly least experienced, Zoe Bourne, as incumbent vicar Sarah, similarly suffered, especially early on, from lack of projection and an apparent lack of ease on stage. It might help if she could have a better-trained dog collar and a clerical costume that doesn’t cause her to look as though she is having to fight to keep all in place.
The play is by turns animated and reflective but the latter passages need the former to be effective if they are to work. Overall, it’s a delightful play, at times very funny (but too many lines were rushed and/or squandered on opening night) and, again, I’m certain that this production has very significant further potential: pace, greater variation in vocal tone, clarity from the opening telephone call on – and do allow each pause to convince us that someone else is on the other end of the line – and self-belief will lift this production massively for its remaining performances on Thursday-Saturday, October 25-27 at 7.45 p.m.