Dangerous Obsession

London Repertory Players concluded their second summer season at Boscombe’s Shelley Theatre with N.J. Crisp’s taut three-hander, Dangerous Obsession, one of those thrillers reliant for its effectiveness on the quality of the writing as its characters play out their own psychological conflict – from ‘Cold War’ to the heat of battle. The challenge for director and actors is to hold the audience’s attention without resorting to histrionics, straying into melodrama or overplaying the writing. Crisp’s controlled hand is here rewarded with a production that had its first-night audience engaged throughout.

After two plays set in London and New York flats/apartments, this takes us to the conservatory of a very comfortable Home Counties’ residence. Mark Phillips’s design, the most effective of the season, provides an unremarkable, cosy space, lulling us enticingly into the ensuing action, complemented by the (unattributed) lighting, a sunny opening overtaken inexorably by evening gloom, reflective of the conversation and characters’ dynamics.

Into a brightly lit opening strolls Sally Driscoll, a middle-aged housewife who has been sunning herself, swimsuit-clad, in the garden, itself an early, simple but effective aid in establishing the play’s social milieu. Her ease is only slightly, but noticeably, disturbed by the appearance of a consciously neatly besuited man, carrying a briefcase. Locally-based actress Barbara Dryhurst’s Sally effectively treads a line between unease and a determinedly unflustered response to her visitor, her recall of him subtly but clearly less assured than she claims. They are joined by Sally’s husband, Mark, evidently a driven, successful businessman, the character increasingly less convincing in his enthusiasm for their guest. What follows is rather like a chess game, two versus one.

As John Barrett, the quiet-spoken visitor from the not-too-distant past – a holiday encounter between couples, we learn – Al Wadlan’s first entry perfectly prepares us for what is to come. There is about him a stillness, a meticulously self-conscious precision in his verbal and physical expression: this understated, but not to be under-estimated, control is tellingly maintained throughout. It holds our attention, testimony to Al Wadlan’s playing and to Vernon Thompson’s clear-sighted direction. Mark Spalding, another locally-based actor, provides a husband who is brisk, decisive and self-assured, the actor nevertheless resisting the temptation to overplay the contrast. Director and actors shrewdly allow the writing to guide them rather than seeking inappropriately to embellish it. Mark’s simmering, impotent stillness and silence are as much a key feature of the second half of the play, in particular, as are John’s relentless pursuit of the truth and Sally’s more edgy, increasingly fraught responses. Barbara Dryhurst’s thoughtfully judged performance completes a triangle of distinctive characterisations, the three enabling the director to vary the mood and pace throughout.

The moments of laughter – largely, as is common in such plays, wry or ironic in nature – punctuate and relieve the audience’s concentration on and absorption in a clever script and a very good opening night performance. Cheers accompanying the closing applause made clear how much the audience had enjoyed the production.

Apparently, the three full or nearly-full houses in which I have been present reflect the response throughout the run – so you had better get in quickly between now and the closing performance on 22 August. London Repertory Players and Shelley Theatre are to be congratulated on what is clearly proving a successful partnership, the good news for followers being that the company will return next summer for a four-week season with a varied programme of four plays.