Bus Stop

Lyndhurst Drama & Musical Society  Vernon Theatre, Lyndhurst Darren Funnell   28 April  2023

Plays, like Bus Stop by William Inge, are so evocative of place in time and aspic values, that the best and only course is to treat the writing with care, craft and deliver a postcard from the past. This is what the Director, Brian Buck, does with great skill at Lyndhurst Drama and Musical Society. A small-town Diner in the mid-Fifties somewhere west of Kansas City, with Eisenhower on the wall, and a snowstorm raging. The trope of stranded travellers in a remote and unfamiliar place works because it always has. Together the bus passengers drift out into the night exposing frailties and relationships. It is not without humour. It is often bittersweet. LDMS succeed in drawing naïve warmth from the cold of middle America.

I am going to start with the production team as when I talk about care and craft their work on Bus Stop is pretty much faultless. A beautiful set that lives for the characters. I could almost smell coffee stewing in the pot, ham on the grill and hard gum under the tables. Impressive stuff. Equally so, lighting that successfully, and sparingly, murmurs from the back of the stage to provide wintry haze. Wardrobe, hair and make-up nail the Fifties down. Props are spot on. Scene changes are unobtrusive. I adored the sprinkles of snow on jackets as the characters enter the restaurant. The wind behind the door. The whole team cared about this production, and it showed. Fantastic job.

Bus Stop also has a very strong cast that live and breathe within the setting. Pace was maintained and accents didn’t fly too far away from the Atlantic coast. One of the things I found particularly enjoyable was the way they maintained the reality and kept busy – shining glasses or reading books and newspapers – when not having dialogue on stage. This is much harder to direct, or perform, than it looks. It kept the Fifties alive.

As you might expect everyone has an arc and a story to tell. I don’t want to give too much away as that’s the whole point of going to see Bus Stop.  As characters, Dr Gerald Lyman (Richard Barnett) walks the trickiest line – especially with a modern lens – but does so excellently. There is a section in Act 2 where he is a ‘Romeo’ and must pull everything out of himself to slide emotionally from intellectual confidence to remorse. You’ll rarely see a better performance. Elma Duckworth (Gemma Wilkes) has most to do with the ‘good’ Doctor. She plays the naïve small-town girl with such purpose that you can see the dreams behind her eyes.

On the other hand, Cherie (Emma Davis) is anything but awkward and inexperienced. A chanteuse who has seen every side of the street. Emma must have felt a lot of pressure as a mirror to the Marilyn Monroe role. I probably would have ditched the wig, if I am honest. Where Marilyn, for all her skills, was mostly two-dimensional, Emma skilfully breathes life and energy into Cherie. Playing against Cherie is Bo (Vic Milne). On Bo’s entrance there is an initial dynamite of bravado that feels like wind hammering your face, but it misdirects as where the performance goes is charming, almost sweet, and well played.

Will Masters gave a fabulously understated performance as the Sheriff.  Will felt real in that town. I could see his Sheriff’s office round the block by his performance alone. Grace Hoyland (Michele Arkle) felt like she had been running that Diner all her life. Again, just brilliant performances. Carl (Richard Sansom) is the living embodiment of “You can’t argue what it is”. Virgil (Shawn Condra) was a good ear for Cherie and Bo as the night drew on. If there is one niggle for me, I don’t think the implicit ‘bromance’ arc between Virgil and Bo came out as well as it might have. It made it feel like the lonely character resolution wasn’t quite earned. Nice guitar playing and voice, though.

The best compliment I can give to everyone is this. When leaving, we all said that it makes us want to see the film. I don’t know if the film is better than this production, but they will be hard pushed. Thank you so much to the front of house crew and committee for continuing to provide a warm and open welcome. The Vernon still has my favourite barman in Hampshire.

You have just the one night to see this production – Saturday 29 April. I strongly recommend that you go out the Diner by the bus stop, grab a burger (no cheese) and enjoy one of the better plays you are going to see this year. “What do you mean ‘no rye’?”