From the fresh, stylised opening, including mingling extras in the Green Room, you could tell this was going to be classy stuff. Director Georgette Ellison has clearly seen it as a labour of pure love with minuscule attention to detail: everything – from the set design, the brilliant, highly watchable furniture-change choreography, costumes to poise and syllables you could cut glass on – has clearly been thought out and pondered upon.
Opening with a homage to the films of the time and seamlessly moving from screen to stage, the set beguiles with as much shadow and intrigue as the stories laid before us. The slot for the paper, the nail for the hat lift the cartoon images: indeed, a chair at the back I swore was part of the scenery, such was the quality of the surrounding imagery, and full marks should be awarded to the set designer/painting team of Mike Jolley, Bob Blake and Nikki Dale for producing such captivating work. Only using sepia, black, whites and greys with the odd lustful costumed red shining through, Georgette has really done her homework in creating such a marvellous backdrop for her characters that inhabit the world of Bournemouth 1953.
With Rattigan’s ice-cold script, the cast all have to be at the top of their game to convey such reserved passions. They do not disappoint, with Matt Ellison superlative in dual roles alongside the similarly impressive dual Jo Short as lovers that were – but were they and what is the definition of love anyway? – in the first-half play and repressed feelings in the next.
Emma Jobling sparkles as the ever-pragmatic Miss Cooper, her acid look turning to lying bland indifference as she spies her rival on walking into the lounge a particular highlight. Christine English and Meriel Shepherd, clearly having a ball as the high-class regulars with secrets of their own, and Neil Gwynne as a delightful Mr Fowler in similar mode, inhabit their roles with relish.
Leighton Forte and Julia Longland come into their own in the second half, enjoying their ‘baby talk’, and both giving stirring defences of their characters’ beliefs. Helen Ford gives a positive life force to the Miss Meacham role, adding a real zest for the ‘now’ and a wonderful flounce in dismissal of bigotry and pettiness.
As written, the main role characters are all liars, which makes their futile life all the more interesting. As the maids, and indications of a life outside the hotel, I very much enjoyed the playfulness and normality Jasmine Roll and Andrea Stubbins gave with such shortly written material for their roles. Each has her own definite character and delivers properly cooked food from the backstage area with pure naturalness, enjoying their gossip but without the need to use it for judgmental purposes, as so many of the patrons they serve do throughout the play.
Directed with aplomb, lit, staged and costumed beautifully, this production, which runs until 17 March at 7.30 each evening, would surely have met with Rattigan’s approval.