After the Ball
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
This is the story of a family from 1914 to 1971 told through the muddled memory of William Randall suffering from dementia in a care home. It isn’t that he doesn’t remember the past clearly but that the memories are concentrated in what they contain and lack any chronology.
William is an ardent supporter of the International Socialist Movement who believes that the workers of Europe can unite to prevent war. He is an activist addressing meetings and maintains his Socialist beliefs though, as the conflict escalates, and almost immediately after his marriage to Blanche, he responds to the pointed finger of General Kitchener by volunteering. Wounded, he comes back to Brixton to be nursed by his wife and fathers a child before returning to Ypres, a child who will become an independent political woman and take a job with the EU.
Events are acted out with the lead characters always in the costumes first seen in, so it is guesswork to know when some scenes are happening until there is a clue in the dialogue. Since there isn’t any part of the story kept hidden for later dramatic revelation, this is unnecessarily confusing.
Scaffolding and Astroturf provide a setting of minimalist abstraction that does little to support the naturalistic acting, though avoiding distraction. The ultra-loud explosions of music and effects between scenes don’t help either except for one sequence that forms a scene in itself of siren warning, explosions and All Clear, though whether this is intended to be 1940s or the First World War is not obvious.
These problems apart, director Nadia Papachronopoulou keeps the action moving but, apart from deterioration in dementia, there is little attempt to indicate aging in those who start out as adults (Will and Blanche seem middle-aged throughout), though this matches the fact that there is little noticeable character development.
The play purports to follow people campaigning for an equal society and universal franchise but, though Will spouts on about Socialism, there is little real argument and Blanche remains stuck in Edwardian attitudes. When her years of resentment boil over and when Will finds someone with whom to be happy, there is a brief glimpse of another side of them but, despite vivid writing, these characters seem too stereotypical—even making the strict Socialist teetotal.
Six decades of personal and political history in a two-hour play is a difficult thing to pull off. Ian Grant floods the play with Will’s instinctive belief in equality and gives Will and his daughter high hopes for the Attlee and Wilson administrations; he ignores that neither delivered the true Socialism he preaches. We get the ideals but not real involvement in politics; the emphasis is on people and the effect of a forced separation so early in marriage rather than about the war itself.
This production doesn’t solve the play’s problems but the cast do what they can to deliver. Julia Watson is entirely believable as repressed, innocent Blanche but we see no evidence in her of her feminism in action. Stuart Fox gives young Will vitality and feeling but can’t overcome it being at odds with his appearance, but more visibly becomes the old man struggling with memory.
Elizabeth Healey, as a family friend, at least gets a costume change and is touching as Will’s Belgian love Marguerite. Jack Bennett is Albert Kerridge, Blanche’s cousin, who introduces her to his mate Will, and Mark Carlisle has an interesting double as an officious recruiting sergeant who turns out to be a good mate on the battlefield and as Marguerite’s father.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton