A Separate Peace

Tom Stoppard
The Remote Read

A Separate Peace
Denise Gough Credit: Matt Humphrey
David Morrissey Credit: Matt Humphrey

In the 2½ months since all forms of mass entertainment ended in mid-March, desperate theatre aficionados have been feeding their addiction by watching recordings of stage productions, often of the very highest quality.

However, in an attempt to replicate the experience of live theatre, The Remote Read asked director Sam Yates to create a real-time performance of a TV play, A Separate Peace, written in 1964 by Tom Stoppard, whose glorious Leopoldstadt has sadly been lost due to the closure of theatres.

Very commendably, the production was not only created to entertain those hungry for something close to a true theatre experience but also to raise funds for stage technicians and creatives who are out of work as a result of the pandemic and also The Felix Project food charity.

Anyone seeing the play, which was presented via Zoom, might immediately have imagined that it came from the pen of Joe Orton or that of Harold Pinter, given the absurdist humour that runs throughout, coupled with an underlying hint of menace.

The initial premise is simple enough. Mr Brown, played by David Morrissey, is a wealthy, happy chappie who decides that he wants to check himself into quiet, comfortable accommodation.

Where anybody else would have booked into a country house hotel, our protagonist instead chooses a private nursing home.

Arriving late at night, he soon pushes his way past Maggie Service’s receptionist to be confronted by an overly-tired Doctor portrayed by a particularly impressive and well-rehearsed Denise Gough. In an effort to get back to bed, she agrees to giving the aspiring patient a room for the night, even though Brown cheerfully admits that he has no underlying health issues.

Having once been admitted, the staff soon discover that their new guest is there for the duration.

His relationship with Matron, played by Ed Stoppard, is prickly at best, since the responsible manager is offended at the prospect of a potentially valuable bed being occupied by someone who does not even have the courtesy to masquerade as a malingerer.

Rather than allowing the blissful resident to succumb to indolence or boredom, a number of occupations are proposed of which his preference lies in painting.

Having spent the first part of a 35-minute production watching actors performing in front of artificial white backgrounds, it is a relief when, as a result, Brown’s wall is illuminated by a mural of a Van Gogh-style landscape.

You might get short shrift from the matron, but Brown receives considerably more sympathetic treatment at the hands of young Nurse Maggie, building a strong rapport with the character played by Jenna Coleman.

Indeed, she is the person who eventually provides meagre morsels of evidence, which might allow those at the hospital to discover the identity of a mystery man, who initially denies any past history or home location.

By the end of the piece, reality impinges, not necessarily for the better.

Perhaps inevitably, there were some technical difficulties, particularly with voices heard at a different time from the lips to which they should have been firmly attached. In addition, there is a slightly incongruous mixture as some of the actors had learned the script, while others were very obviously reading.

There is no question that it is a rare pleasure to see live performers in this whimsical but charming work that speaks to our times, especially as it has just a modicum of something darker beneath the surface.

There can therefore be little doubt that the experiment will be repeated, particularly as it seems inevitable that theatres are to remain closed for the foreseeable future.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher