Neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I can actually remember seeing the film of Ladies in Lavender, so seeing the stage production was certainly a chance to appreciate the story for the first time. There was a big “oooh” of excitement when it was announced at the subscription season launch that this production would star Hayley Mills. I was certainly responsible for one of the “oooh”s. My only concern at the time was they would need to cast another actress of sufficient clout to keep it balanced – but I needn’t have worried as they have in the form of Belinda Lang.
And what a palpable sense of 1937 Cornish claustrophobia they really do conjure up. From the moment the curtain rises on their unravelling wool whilst listening to the wireless, meticulously planning the timing and the construct of the evening’s cocoa, you understand that, by today’s standards, and using Shirley Valentine’s phrase, these are two little lives inhabiting a very little world. But the storm that scares them into an early night also provides them with the biggest shake-up they’ve probably ever experienced – the discovery the next morning of a young man washed up on the beach. By the time he’s been rescued, seen by Dr Mead and put to bed under the protection of Aunt Elizabeth’s counterpane, their lives will be changed forever; as, for good measure, will the mysterious young Andrea’s too.
What must the world have been like in 1937 – a pretty scary place, I would imagine. The local community would be highly suspicious of an eastern European, fluent in German, suddenly appearing in their community. Added to which, another foreigner, Olga, unexpectedly moves to the area, allegedly to improve her painting skills, but she wants to make contact with him. Are they spies? Was his sudden appearance on the shore somehow staged? Are the genteel Widdington sisters in any danger? Surely not, you think – but as the plot opens out there is a nagging doubt in the back of your mind. In the end you realise your concerns were unfounded – the truth was much simpler and more honest because what the story is all about is the simple attraction Ursula feels for Andrea.
At first, the sisters are competitive in his fascination for them, vying for the privilege to assist his bedside needs, childishly arguing over who saw him first. But it is Ursula rather than Janet who lingers, reads him the story of The Little Mermaid, and for whom the fascination develops into love. Of course, this love is unrequited for a gazillion reasons – mainly age difference, background, ambition – and of course the simple reason that he doesn’t actually fancy her. Dr Mead is also smitten with Olga – one gets the feeling that the late Mrs Mead wasn’t really a party animal – and his approaches are also ignored. When he’s trying gently to chat her up on the beach he points out a local folly – then goes on to describe it as not really a folly, as it was built by a local worthy to escape from his wife. That’s the metaphor for the play – this love for unsuitable, younger people may seem like folly, but in reality it’s not; it’s an escape, but it’s also likely to be unsuccessful.
The heart-warming thing about this story is that no one really criticises Ursula for her love. Why shouldn’t she love Andrea? There’s a beautiful penny-drop moment when Andrea sees Ursula crying outside in the garden – that’s when he understands the truth, and there’s no denying the strength of the emotions between either of them from that moment. The story ends as it must with Ursula, Janet and the Doctor, all listening to the wireless, together but separate, and coping with their various levels of sadness; the final hand-holding between the two sisters suggesting they will return to their previous existence, supporting each other as needed.
It’s a fantastic production of a charming play. Hayley Mills and Belinda Lang present you with an acting masterclass that’s so natural you completely suspend belief that they’re on a stage. Hayley Mills becomes a girl again as she loses herself to the mysterious Andrea, helping him learn the language by sticking English words on pieces of furniture like a game, and getting selfish and defensive when presented with the prospect of his moving on. Of course she’s demurely well behaved; serene and controlled on the exterior, but with emotions working nineteen to the dozen under the surface. She has a beautiful, expressive voice combining clarity and vulnerability in a riveting way; an infectious enthusiasm, and a look that can drive you to tears. As you would expect, it’s a superb performance.
Keeping her in check as much as possible, Belinda Lang as the slightly bossier sister Janet is superbly well cast. She brings out all the excellent “no nonsense” nuances of the character, but even her defences get breached as the arrival of Andrea brings to mind her lost Peter, who went to war and never came back – that whole element of the plot is so beautifully and subtly written, incidentally. I very much enjoyed her snooty reaction to the appearance of Olga on her land, and her otherwise hearty good nature brings out a lot of the humour of the story as she too gives an exceptional performance.
There is a third member of the household, Dorcas, played by Carol Macready, who acts as cook, maid and general factotum, never missing an opportunity to puncture any pomposity or reveal a hypocrisy. Kind hearted but brusque, hers is a great comic turn, and she makes the most of the comedy opportunities that the script generously provides – we particularly loved her gentle awakening of the hungover Andrea. It was very enjoyable to see her on the Royal stage again, as she was excellent in Eden End last year.
Robert Duncan’s Dr Mead has nice stiff-upper-lip bluster but convincingly allows us to get under his skin to see his inner sadness and his wish to partner up again – maybe with the lovely Olga, maybe not. His brief silent appearance on the beach when he espies Andrea apparently serenading Olga with the violin spoke volumes. A very thoughtful and affecting performance.
As the mysterious Andrea, to be honest Robert Rees doesn’t have a great deal to do in the first half of the play except speak in a Polish accent and look either surprised or delighted. But as the role develops he also gives a very good performance, with his innocent pleasure of Olga’s company, his childish rage when he realises the sisters have prevented him from seeing her, and his tender reaction to his understanding of Ursula’s feelings for him.
The final member of the cast is Abigail Thaw as Olga, a cool customer with Dr Mead, an interloper in the sisters’ garden and the eventual encourager of Andrea’s talent, all of which she performs with spirited aplomb and that slight air of mystery that just makes you wonder if she has an “agenda”. Another really good performance.
The story takes place in four specific locations – the beach, the sisters’ front room, the garden and the upstairs bedroom. The Royal only has a little stage! But the set inventively uses every possible space and successfully squeezes in all the locations; and combined with simple but effective lighting it works a treat. Nitpicking, I only have two slightly critical observations: violins have to be played during the course of the play and – although I’m no expert – I’m not entirely sure Mr Rees’ arm movements with the bow could actually make the sound the violin was purporting to emit. His movement was very smooth, slow and regular even when the tune got a bit funky. Secondly, I think the very final scene would be improved if we didn’t see the figure of Andrea playing the violin in the distant corner – it detracted from what was otherwise a fully realistic presentation all the way through, and as an image it was totally eclipsed by the movingly stricken expressions on the faces of the rest of the cast in that final tableau.
But it’s an ace production of a very charming play, acted magnificently and a real spellbinder throughout. It would be a crime if it were not to be seen elsewhere after it finishes its run in Northampton and its time at the Oxford Playhouse in May. We were actually wondering if it might – just might – have something of the “End of the Rainbow” in its future. All the ingredients are there to make it a potentially huge success. Definitely recommended!