Clara at Noon, Fade-Out, Home Time
Wendy Dickinson, Lyndsey Honour, David Hendon
society/company: Windsor Fringe Kenneth Branagh Awards (directory)
performance date: 07 Oct 2017
venue: Brigidine School Windsor
reviewer/s: Frank Kaye (Sardines review)
A REVIEW OF THE PERFORMANCE OF THE THREE FINALIST PLAYS FOR KENNETH BRANAGH AWARDS FOR NEW DRAMA WRITING, 2017 AT THE WINDSOR FRINGE
“We are proud to present a performance of the three finalists for the Kenneth Branagh Awards for New Drama Writing. The winner has already been selected and will be revealed at the end of the evening.” What an intriguing set up for reviewing the performances – would it match the judges’ perception of the writing?
The Fringe website notes that Windsor is unique in having full performances of the three finalist plays, rather than the more usual rehearsed readings. It says that this is to allow the writers to work with a director and cast to bring the play to life. One doesn’t know how much engagement the writers had but one presumes that the major directorial choices were at least consulted with the playwright. As I have not read the scripts I can only comment on what I saw.
A key constraint for all the performances was the venue, a large school assembly hall with a proscenium arch stage. Certainly, two of the plays were intimate in their engagement with the audience – so the setting was not ideal. A further constraint was presumably time and money though none of the plays were particularly demanding in this respect, notwithstanding the constraints of rehearsal time.
The first play, Clara at Noon, written by Wendy Dickinson, instantly engages the audience as the main protagonist, an old widow living on her own, slowly edges her way on stage with the help of a wheeled Zimmer frame – easier to push but can run away from you! She says nothing for quite a while and then says something like, “Oh well, survived for another day!” We are drawn into the familiar but embarrassing existence to which we consign our old people. Illona Linthwaite perfectly portrays the restricted capabilities of the old and infirm. She misses a phone call because she is too slow and takes another phone call from her daughter where she has exactly the dutiful exchange with which many of us are familiar. Ultimately, she falls asleep in her winged chair – comfortable but symbolic as she could just as easily be in a care home sleeping in a circle of chairs with other tenants of God’s waiting room.
We become aware of a grandfather clock up stage left and especially of the insistent ticking which serves to bring the audience “into the moment” despite nothing happening. A key is heard in the front door and Simone, the carer arrives. The drama of the play is signalled as she puts something in the grandfather clock before waking Clara with a loud “Hello, Clara!” causing her to spill her tea on her blouse. Simone, played with appropriate sensitivity by Jenny Eggleton, says, “Don’t worry, I’ll go and get you a clean blouse. Keep it away from your skin so you don’t scald.” I immediately felt we were going to be exposed to the appalling indignity of old people stripped down to their underwear by strangers. Sadly, we weren’t as Illona was wearing a tee shirt underneath and the play began to lose its hold on me. The remainder of this section is well done including some amusing tick boxing of the obligatory form filling.
After the carer leaves Clara gets a phone call cancelling her reason for being out when the carer and her boyfriend return and she suddenly needs the loo with the result that she falls and the Zimmer frame rolls away from her. We are drawn into the moment again both by Clara’s laboured dragging herself across the floor and, after she passes out, by the incessant clock ticking as she waits interminably for help. For me the fine judgement of how long to wait was just exceeded as my attention began to wander.
The final section when the carer and boyfriend arrive does not quite work for me. The three-way tension between the Clara’s insistence on calling the police, the boyfriend wanting to leave her and Simone caught in the middle works okay but comments by the judges indicate that they saw more here than the audience perceived on the night. We do not get the social commentary about the attitude of the young to the older generations. We certainly do not get “The image of Clara immobilised on the ﬂoor whilst Jason pushes the grandfather clock over has remained with me…” cited by one of the judges. Jason is played perfectly well by Will de Renzy-Martin but the director decided not to push the clock over for practical reasons denying Will the structure of this last section to make his real impact. Overall the direction by Donald Sturrock was fine but for me flawed by a couple of crucial decisions.
The second play, Hometime written by David Hendon and directed by Paula Chitty, was a triumph. Someone sat behind me said that we should have stood to applaud and I agree. Elizabeth George, who plays the sole protagonist, Jennifer, trained in both acting and mime and this is the perfect single hander for an actor with those skills. It is impossible to untangle the roles of writer, director and actor in achieving the outcome but that is what great theatre is all about.
We are taken on a journey from the joy of a mother at home with a small child, through the mixed blessing of her meeting the father who only lasts a year to the final inevitable tragedy. The structure of the play is crucial, starting and ending in the present but going back in time for the middle sections. The structure is overlaid with beautifully written dialogue and then the genius element is the miming of the story. After about ten minutes I began to find the mime a bit distracting but the shift to a night club with appropriate music which ended with a perfectly timed crash and then the ultimate recognition that all this activity was the way that Jennifer coped with the loss resolved my concerns.
The beauty of the writing, acting and direction was the way that we were given pictures of the many characters through the vivid descriptions. Ffion and her father stick in my mind especially when the father says he will “send a car” to pick up his seven-year old from the scene of a traumatic tragedy.
Modern theatre often foregrounds objects, giving them equal status with actors. This play not only has some very simple objects – a red fire-engine, an ironing board, children’s’ clothes but also some vibrant images inserted into our imagination such the green fire-engine drawn by the little boy – which begins and ends the play. We also saw Jennifer laying out clothes on the floor as representations of her child and her schoolfriends. This last would work so much better in a studio theatre with raked seating.
So, to the last play. Fade-out, by Lyndsey Honour directed by Linda Miller. Frankly, for me it didn’t work which was all the more disappointing as it won the Kenneth Branagh writing prize. The performance opens strongly with Alice Langrish as an aggressive TV reporter theatrically facing the audience as she is trying to gain access through the fourth wall. The main protagonist, Ingrid, played by Michelle Fine, is on the inside being challenged to let the reporter in by her manager, Jamie played by Joshua Boyd-Campbell.
The plot concerns the need for Ingrid to make a comeback as a singer after a quarter of a century out of the limelight. This would appear to be driven by financial concerns and she does not relish the attentions she will receive. The play is structured with a number of scenes that feature a different interaction with Ingrid. If it is to work we need to be carried on the emotional journey with Ingrid so that the play does not fragment. Sadly, it did because the balance of each scene was carried by the supporting actors.
Adam Seigel is particularly strong as the emotionally scarred son and he is given two bites of the cherry in two scenes. Michael Jayes gives a convincing performance to bring out the nostalgia element, although the interaction with Michelle Fine felt somewhat insecure on the night. Andrew David is a strong presence as the impresario as the come-back performance approaches.
Michelle Fine’s strongest moment is when she picks up the microphone to sing about half way through. Beyond this though she is outshone by the other actors. Her performance felt rather fragile which may have been deliberate to portray Ingrid’s lack of confidence but it meant that the taut narrative thread of the play that may have been seen on the page by the judges, Sophie Ivatt and Rob Cowen, was somewhat slack and ineffective.
In performance I felt that Clara at Noon and Homecoming delivered on their status as one of three finalists out of more than two hundred and fifty entries. The plays are well structured, well directed and very well acted with particular note going to Illona Linthwaite and Elizabeth George. Fade-out may work in a different context but I have my reservations regarding its over complicated structure for a short thirty-minute play.
9 October 2017