Spring and Port Wine

Bill Naughton

New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme

(2011)

Review by Steve Orme

The New Vic is marking its 25th anniversary year by harking back to how it used to operate under its founder Peter Cheeseman: a permanent ensemble and a repertoire of plays.

Programming the season produced several challenges, according to artistic director Theresa Heskins. The first one was selecting the four plays: she looked through more than 70 texts trying to find something which would give eleven actors plenty of variety over the months that they're based in north Staffordshire.

So far the season's served up Sheridan's comedy of manners The Rivals and David Auburn's analysis of genius versus madness in Proof. Now the theatre-in-the-round has added Bill Naughton's period piece Spring and Port Wine, which is handled by the theatre's former artistic director Gwenda Hughes, into the mix.

The domestic drama which is set in the late 1950s centres on the attempts of Rafe Crompton to hold his family together by being a strict disciplinarian. He wants to retain old-fashioned values while his children, noticing that outside the world is changing rapidly, are intent on rebellion.

Richard Elfyn, a former winner of the BAFTA Cymru best actor award, is appearing at the New Vic for the first time. The role of Rafe is perfect for him as he looks every inch a domineering, Bible-quoting tyrant who must have the truth whatever the consequences. I'm sure older members of the audience must have seen in Elfyn glimpses of their own father or grandfather; such is his mastery of the role.

Joanna Brookes is delightfully mumsy as his wife Daisy who uses all the wiles at her disposal to try to keep the family together, including fiddling the weekly household accounts when anyone is desperate for money.

Although Spring and Port Wine was written more than 50 years ago, it still has resonance today. One of Rafe's sons Harold (a spirited Matt Connor) points out there won't be another depression because there are "economic plans to make it impossible".

I found the first half slightly pedestrian at times as the relationships between the six family members, a fiancé and a neighbour are fully explored and tee up what's to come after the interval.

Then the action really hots up as one by one Rafe's children plot against him and decide to take their revenge on his authoritarian ways.

Joanna Higson, who worked with Gwenda Hughes on A Taste of Honey at the New Vic in 2009, gives a stirring performance as Hilda. She's belligerent yet on the verge of a tantrum as she's determined to walk out of the home on a point of principle. Others soon resolve to follow suit.

Even elder daughter Florence (Louise Kempton) and her defiant fiancé Arthur (Andrew Pollard) turn against Rafe because of his obstinacy.

The tension builds superbly and there's silence in the auditorium as Daisy confesses to Rafe her inadequacies in the home while he reveals a childhood secret which led to his thriftiness. It's a tender moment which achieves maximum pathos.

In true New Vic style, Spring and Port Wine is well acted, with a quality design by Lis Evans and assured direction.

No doubt the theatre will be cracking open a few bottles to celebrate the success of this production.

"Spring and Port Wine" continues until July 26th