Paul Johnson | 28 Jun 2017 11:02am
Last month the Oxted Players brought to their superb Barn Theatre a comedy which has been a staple of both amateur and professional theatre in the US for nearly thirty years, but seldom seen in this country. The Foreigner was only the third play written by Larry Shue before his tragic death in a plane crash cut short what would surely have been a highly successful playwriting career. The play’s popularity in America is undoubtedly due to its relentlessly funny dialogue, wonderfully-drawn characters and the heart-warming nature of the story. In this Oxted production, a first-rate cast took full advantage of its comic possibilities.
The set convincingly represented the parlour of a log farmhouse, adapted as a holiday fishing lodge, in rural Georgia. Its attractive homely decor displayed good attention to detail, such as the fishing tackle on the wall, and lighting and sound effects combined appropriately to provide a realistic and appropriate background.
The play’s story revolves around the visit to the lodge of two English guests. One, Charlie, is depressed by marital problems to the point where he is unable to converse with anyone, so his friend Froggy, a British army bomb expert training American troops at a nearby base, introduces him as a foreigner who does not understand a word of English. Consequently, Charlie unwittingly overhears revealing conversations, including a plan to defraud the lodge’s rightful owner of their inheritance. Highly improbable plot twists, too many to detail here, create both tension and hilarity until all is resolved predictably but satisfactorily.
Tricia Whyte directed a well-balanced cast, maintaining a spanking pace and achieving a high degree of ensemble playing. Accents, often a problem in American plays, especially where regional dialects are required, here gave the impression of authenticity without exaggeration. Movement and grouping of characters on the stage were always appropriate and physical action, especially in the violent denouement, very well plotted, practised and controlled. The author’s stated intention is for the audience to be led to personal judgements which are later revealed to be incorrect or even the reverse of their original assumptions, and this was clearly accomplished by this talented cast.
As Froggy, Chris Bassett personified the American idea of a ‘stiff-upper-lip’ Englishman without resorting to caricature. Wendy O’Mahony was excellent in the role of Betty, the elderly and slightly distrait owner of the lodge, exuding sweetness and hospitality, who became energised and efficient in later scenes.
Laura Brand gave a believable account of the shrill and spoiled Catherine’s redemption and David, an ordained minister to whom she is engaged, was played by Phil Fry initially as decent and friendly but later in a less savoury light. As Owen, the local property inspector and would-be mayor with Ku Klux Klan connections, Steve Bedford dominated his scenes with barely concealed evil intent and Teddy Stevenson created an energetically likeable portrait of the apparently slow-witted but ultimately triumphantly inventive Ellard.
All these character transformations are brought about by the continual presence of the ‘foreigner’ Charlie and the others’ reactions to him. In this pivotal role Peter Calver gave a truly outstanding performance of exceptional skill and subtlety, radiating charm and demonstrating superb comic timing. Of necessity spending much of his time on stage mutely absorbing, but not betraying interest in or understanding of, conversations around him, he gave a masterclass in passive listening and mobile facial expression (without ever succumbing to the exaggeration which actors refer to as ‘mugging’).
He was especially hilarious when being ‘taught’ English by the other residents and even more so when forced to satisfy their curiosity as to his own ‘language’ by demonstrating a totally invented and ridiculous one. He also, over the course of the play, portrayed believably the gradual development of Charlie’s emotional state, from moroseness and self-loathing to the confident personality that he had always wanted to be.
In addition to its continual and often side-splitting humour, the play worked as a fantasy in which good triumphs over evil. This flawless performance offered an ample measure of warmth and truth, which left the audience not only enthusiastically entertained but also significantly moved. All in all, a memorable theatrical experience of which the Oxted Players may be justly proud.
- : admin
- : 20/05/2017