Orange Tree, Richmond
Alison Stanhope is a strange central character for a play, in that her death occurred 18 years before New Year's Eve 1899 when the drama is set.
Even so, Alison is an abiding figure in the family house in Iowa that is now to be sold to protect her senile sister, Agatha played by Georgine Anderson.
In fact, to varying degrees the Stanhopes are all away with the fairies. While Agatha attempts to keep a family secret, her brother John is even more defensive about the memory of Alison, a figure reputedly based on Emily Dickinson. There are clearly skeletons in this cupboard, which the younger generation will be happy to see revealed but the poet's siblings find too embarrassing to contemplate let alone discuss.
The problem with Alison's House is that far too many of the characters feel like stereotypes. 20-year-old Ted is played by Dudley Hinton as a brainless oaf, while his brother Eben wallows in unvarying unhappiness resulting from marriage to the tediously terrifying Louise (Emma Pallant).
That leaves the relatively level-headed Elsa, played by talented recent RADA graduate Gráinne Keenan. She is a fallen woman, having eloped with a married man and a father to boot. It is her return that triggers the mystery, which is part literary and part romantic.
As a counterweight to the mad Stanhopes, a rather sweet romance develops between the other two major characters, each drawing fine performances from the actors.
Jennifer Higham plays Ann Leslie, a bright young secretary and ward, devoted to the family possibly as a result of unspoken connections to do with her history. She is instantly entranced by a new arrival, Nicolas Gadd as Richard Knowles, a journalist from Chicago with poetic leanings and the kind of devotion to a poet that sits heavily on the shoulders of a hack. Even so, this pair are far more interesting than the whole Stanhope family put together.
The feeling that one is watching a soap from three quarters of a century back becomes even more certain when the potential purchasers of the house roll up uninvited and turn out to be classic country hicks made good.
Alison's House has some strong underlying themes and, in particular, the idea that a 19th-century female poet, whose work remained undiscovered until after her early death, should have had hidden depths is good. However, neither the play nor this production make the most of the potential.