This revival of the 1985 version (there was a 1979 version too) of Willy Russell’s One For The Road is the first production of this year’s Made in Northampton “Comedy Gold” season and also the last to be directed by the Royal and Derngate’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom before he goes on to pastures new at the National Theatre of Scotland.
Dammit, we’re going to miss him here. Since we started coming to the R&D in 2010 we’ve seen loads of his work and he is quite astounding. He has two major strengths as a director: the ability to get to the heart of a text and make the words do the work, and an amazing knack of creating an intimate ensemble out of any cast so that they work seamlessly together as one. I did make a plea when we saw The Duchess of Malfi that he should not be allowed to go to another theatre. I quote: “In fact I hope they won’t let him out of the building; well maybe, tagged, and allowed to stray no further than Prezzo’s.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Oh, it was me who said it anyway. But Mrs Chrisparkle and I do wish him all the best success in his new post, which I am sure he will make into one big creative jamboree.
One For The Road is an interesting choice to kick off the season, as it’s one of Mr Russell’s lesser known works and, whilst it is firmly set in its era with very 1980s cultural references – well done for remembering the Wogan TV music by the way – the theme of the play is timeless and its message is certainly relevant to 2013. It’s also interesting to see Russell’s favourite concepts surface in this play and to compare where he has dealt with them, perhaps to greater success, in other plays. It’s Dennis’ fortieth birthday. He’s been reflecting on what might have been, if only things had gone differently; and he’s basically gone into depression at the realisation he’s led a “little life” (viz. Shirley Valentine). He and Pauline have moved out of their terrace and in to the new estate (viz. 65 Skelmersdale Lane in Blood Brothers). It’s Phase II as well, you can’t get any more modern or chic – we should know, we only live in Phase I of our development – and in so doing, have almost caught up with their social climbing old friends and now neighbours Roger and Jane. But not quite; Roger and Jane have embraced their middle class lifestyle with open arms, wallets and prejudices; and whilst Pauline is trying to “better herself” (viz. Educating Rita) mainly for the sake of appearances, Dennis is a fish out of water who despises (no, hates) the fripperies of bourgeoisie, like cooking Hachis au Parmentier and regarding John Denver as a musical divinity. He leads his life guided by insightful song lyrics and still keeps up a bit of self-written poetry but obviously that side of him is becoming extinguished.
To celebrate Dennis’ 40th, Pauline has arranged an ill-conceived dinner party for the four of them, plus Dennis’ parents, clearly old-brigade northerners who can’t find their way round Phase II because all the houses look the same and there are no numbers. The parents never actually reach the house, which leaves even more wine to be consumed, mainly by Dennis, who’s already downed a few sneaky beers, and the evening descends into one of those alcohol-fuelled farces where painful truths are revealed and no one’s life will ever be quite the same again afterwards. How very unlike my own fortieth birthday, which was spent sipping champagne at the Shangri-La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, or Mrs Chrisparkle’s, which took place in a massive children’s play area/ball park. This wasn’t Pauline’s only bad decision that night. They were expecting six for dinner but only laid the table for four. What’s all that about then?
The structure of the play means the first half mainly provides the chuckle of recognition and the second half the belly laugh of farce; much better that it crescendoes in that way rather than diminuendoes. Jessica Curtis’ stark set provides an insight into a rather soulless existence, where the only sign of individuality is Dennis’ collection of LPs that takes on the appearance of clutter rather than comfort. It all feels appropriately artificial.
I was very pleased when I first heard that Dennis was to be played by Con O’Neill as he has long been one of my favourite actors. Seeing him on the stage in this production, and hearing again his unique voice with its seemingly fragile timbre, reminded me of why he could reduce grown men to tears as Mickey in Blood Brothers. Again his voice is perfect here for the desperate, broken character of Dennis, and he really gets into all aspects of the character – a full blend of both his punchy/aggressive and vulnerable sides. Technically he’s brilliant too, with faultless prop-handling, timing and a completely believable “very drunk” act. His performance gave the play a deep intensity, so much so that at the end Mrs C felt rather exhausted – but in a good way.
I very much enjoyed the performance of Michelle Butterly as Pauline, trying to keep up the pretentiousness of her environment, but also failing to conceal her own true background. She’s great at being culturally bullied by her apparently more naturally superior friends and she’s got a very good posh scouse accent!
Nicola Stephenson turns in a wonderfully supercilious performance as the vain know-it-all Jane, patronising her way through the evening with the intent of making everyone else feel small. With an eye for a scandal at any opportunity, she’s keen to fling around suggestions of premature ejaculation without any supporting evidence, and she’s not reticent about forcing herself into Dennis’ locked desk to reveal supposed proof of sexual perversity. When it finally gets opened, I had already guessed what would be in there.
Matthew Wait’s Roger is a wide-boy made good who’s only partly grown up, with a penchant for playing games and adopting a pompous tone to get his way. His life too could have been creatively more fulfilled but he is satisfied with the self-indulgence that his lifestyle brings. Delightfully smug, and very funny when his world falls down around him.
At the end of the play three of the characters attempt to rewrite history so that they can go back to their comfortable shallow lives; but does Dennis make a break for it, and look upon the dinner party as one last “one for the road”, or does he remain trapped in his middle class misery? You’ll have to see the play to find out. It’s a very enjoyable production, on until 23rd February, with great performances and it’s a fitting swansong for Mr Sansom.
Is it me, or have audiences got really grumpy over the last few months about standing up to let you get to and from your seat if you’re not on an aisle? Mrs C and I have noticed this a lot recently. Not that long ago, an “excuse me, but may I get past” would have been met with a “certainly” and a stand up, which we always reply with a “thank you” to every second or third person we inconvenience; but today you’re likely to be met with an insolent scowl, under-breath muttering, begrudged seat swivelling, or indeed an actual vocalised phrase of annoyance. At a recent performance, one unhelpfully stubborn woman was grabbing hold of a hot drink defensively as if it were an excuse not to move. Mrs C had no choice but to take it out of her hand with an “If I hold on to that you can stand up and let me through”. Theatregoers of Northampton, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and London, you’re all doing it. Just stop it!