Association of Community Theatre
Show Reviews - June 2017
By Gerald Sibleyras (translated by Tom Stoppard)
Colne Dramatic Society
With the summer sun still bathing the courtyard of The Little Theatre in its sleepy warmth, it wasn’t easy to enter the lovely bijou venue, and sadly there were several seats empty as the play started its run in Colne possibly due to the beautiful evening.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that just over four years ago, the same cast performed this play at the ACE in Nelson as part of The Burnley Garrick’s 2012 –2013 season, and from what I was told by committee members, not a great deal had been changed, just a few tweaks here and there, overseen by Marilyn Crowther. Naturally, a different production team generally means a different production – a different set for example. However, this play was new to me, and therefore I had nothing whatsoever to compare it to.
What first struck me about this production is that simplicity works. This is something that I have commented on in previous reviews, that the simplest of staging can often be hugely successful: a single bench with a small potted plant at each side of the stage against a backdrop of stone wall and behind this, a printed scene (some 50 or so small prints fastened together to form a representation of houses, trees and possibly a church, viewed at some distance). It was a set that worked incredibly well, John Mills demonstrating once again that he has an eye for detail and the skills to produce a convincing illusion of depth and perspective.
Lastly (as with the Garrick’s production) Alan Hargreaves’ wonderfully crafted stone dog made an additional point of interest, positioned front of stage. This statue was to become the focus of several conversations between the characters as the play progressed, and actually a listed character in its own right; a subject of amusement both for the characters on stage and the audience alike.
The production opened with the audience being treated to the recognisable tones of Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie En Rose’, a tune that was repeated throughout every scene change – to reinforce the mundanity of the characters’ lives perhaps - thus setting the scene for Henri (Peter Allen), Gustave (Alan Bailey) and Philippe (Alan Hargreaves) to enter onto the terrace of their retirement home. Three aged ex-servicemen, vaguely aware of their limitations physically although unnervingly still sex-driven (an aspect of the play that I feel the script dealt with often brusquely, and with worrying undertones, leaving me feeling uneasy) all three ably conveyed physical weakness: through trembling hand movement, stammering and unsteady perambulation and yet glorious mental dexterity, their minds visibly whirring with thoughts and references to young girls and young women, as past sexual recollections danced around in their minds.
Far removed from venerable elderly gentlemen spending their winter years in quiet contemplation of their lives serving the country, playwright, Gerald Sibleyras portrays them as eccentric old codgers living in a world of sexual fantasy and impossible dreams of adventure. Henri had clearly spent a long time at the home – badly injured during WW1 perhaps, a man of not great age when he had first found himself residing across from the poplar trees of the play’s original title, ‘Le Vent des Peupliers’ (‘The Wind in the Poplars’).
Phillippe had arrived some fifteen years later and now endured mild seizures or absences, from which he always recovered quickly yet seemingly caught up in some heroic naval confrontation; Gustave, the relative newcomer and ex-officer of high rank perhaps, suffered acute reluctance to venture beyond of the grounds of the accommodation. Other than this - and one of my gripes with this play - we are given very little information about the three men, and as such, the characters are not three dimensional – not at all the fault of the performers I should stress, they all worked with vigour to bring the script to life.
Any prompts were entirely understandable as the heat in the theatre felt by the audience surely must have been doubled for the cast in their suits and hats under stage lights. So, prompts aside, the very simple plot flowed well. The story, though, is a limited one, rumination on women, opportunities missed and unattained ambitions, the men decide to leave the confines of the retirement home for pastures new, at least as far away as the poplars on the distant hillsides. And, throughout the hour and a half or so on stage, the characters relayed some of their fears, some inhibitions, betrayed their frailties and their desires, but it was detail that only scratched the surface. Humour took the form of spoken wit, slapstick antics, amiable poking of fun at each other, some of which, as I have mentioned, was difficult to stomach as a female – misogynistic and demeaning.
This made me question the views that the writer himself held of women: often written as the object of fun, sometimes the object of desire, definitely objects and not people considered in any depth beyond superficial appearance, and this was a distraction from my appreciation of finer, subtler and more poignant moments in the play, for example, Phillippe’s emotional yet composed response to hearing about the passing of his sister. Alan Hargreaves delivered this exquisitely, yet the recollection of Phillippe describing his sexual antics with a past lover moments earlier was still shredding away the warmth I had felt for the character.
Similarly, frail Henri was to be pitied for his injuries (loss of movement or strength in lower right leg) but his grinning, lustful, unctuous references to the school girls and their teacher was sufficient to remove all pity. And yet, all the characters were to be pitied, for their aging decrepitude and acknowledgement of this, for as much as they tried to push this awareness to the back of their minds and indeed, the audience’s, it was there, on stage, to be sadly witnessed.
In short, it is a play about human mortality, and of an almost frantic desire to escape the inevitable fate that we all share. Perhaps this was Sibleyras’ or Stoppard’s intention – to indicate that fear can reveal the unsavoury side of the human/male psyche.
One point that bothered me too, was that Gustave’s exertions did actually take their toll on the actor. The part was masterly delivered, however, I was close enough to hear his laboured breathing and he did appear to be suffering for some time after lifting Phillippe onto his back; if, on the other hand, this delivery was part of the actor’s characterisation, then I applaud his attention to detail.
I came away from the theatre feeling that the over-riding attribute of this production was indeed the attention to detail: with its limited plot and a play script that contained little in the way of movement or high drama, the focus was on characters and characterisation, not developed by the playwright but by the players themselves. And even though I did not feel much in the way of fondness for the individual parts as they are scripted, I knew that I had witnessed some fine performances by highly skilled actors played out on a visually pleasing set, thus closing what has been a dedicated and varied season for Colne Dramatic Society.