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Black Chiffon

Lesley Storm
Frinton Summer Theatre in association with Park Theatre
Park Theatre (Park 90)

Abigail Cruttenden as Alicia and Ian Kelly as Robert Credit: Mark Douet
Jemima Watling as Louise and Jack Staddon as Roy Credit: Mark Douet
Eva Feiler as Thea Credit: Mark Douet
Nicholas Murchie as Dr Hawkins Credit: Mark Douet
Yvonne Newman as Nanny Credit: Mark Douet
Ian Kelly as Robert and Abigail Cruttenden as Alicia Credit: Mark Douet

Black Chiffon, which had a successful run of 409 performances when it premièred at the Westminster Theatre in 1949, is a play of its time set in the drawing room of the home of the upper middle class Christies on Chelsea Embankment; they even have a nanny kept on as a servant after the children have got too old to need one.

Son Roy, 22, is about to be married to charming Louise, whose parents live in India and won’t be at the wedding. But they’ve changed their minds and have turned up in London; now, having invited them to dinner, Mrs Christie (Alicia) has to find something suitable to offer them. Nanny says they only have fish (and that’s not very fresh) so Alicia goes shopping.

Could we be in for comedy as the Christies, still limited by rationing, meet the in-laws who are used to a house full of servants and provisions in plenty, or perhaps something more serious about Indian independence and the loss of Empire?

No, this is a play about family not politics and it gets more dramatic when, two hours after she said she’d be back and with Louise’s parents imminently expected, Alicia hasn’t returned. And that’s where I have to give a spoiler alert.

It turns out that, totally forgetting what she went out for, she has been arrested for shoplifting: stealing a black chiffon nightdress in a smart store.

But why did she steal it? She had money, she could have bought it; besides this isn’t something she would wear. That’s what Nicholas Murchie’s kindly Dr Hawkins asks when he is brought in by Alicia’s husband Robert and their lawyer to find a defence that will get her off.

We have already seen how close Roy and his mother are and been told of the rocky relationship between him and his father, Alicia becoming a buffer between them. When his children were young, Robert Christie was absent abroad for years at a time; on returning, his son seemed to have the greater share of her affection.

Hawkins is a psychiatrist (1949 critics complained of the plethora of psychiatrists in plays, taking over from detectives). In the close mother bond, about to be broken by Roy’s marriage and some other information provided by Louise, he sees a defence strategy. But what psychiatrists see as common and natural, others might see as abnormally Oedipal and what would the press make of that if they heard it in court?

That might not loom so large today but in this play it is a key element, family privacy and respectability being closely guarded.

As the young couple, Jack Staddon and Jemima Watling play rather conventional juveniles, Eva Feiler gives a little more character to Jack’s sister Thea, very pregnant and knitting away whenever she sits down.

Robert Christie is a stereotypical inconsiderate chauvinist husband, perhaps deliberately so: Lesley Storm is presenting a feminist viewpoint. Ian Kelly goes along with that in his characterisation, which wins a few laughs, but unflinching, he sustains it with a brief glimpse of a man who probably does love his wife though his idea of gender roles means he doesn’t show it.

Abigail Cruttenden, as Alicia, also presents the controlled, well-mannered behaviour of her class, but she is allowed to show her love for her children and she handles the build-up of stress effectively, before imposing the stiff upper lip that aims to hide her true feelings but actually makes her struggle more obvious.

Clive Brill’s direction doesn't impose 21st century ideas but stays true to the text while avoiding false theatricality, which would be immediately obvious in this intimate setting with the audience on two sides. He ensures smooth transitions between scenes by giving Yvonne Newman’s Nanny the job of tidying and clearing as though they are her routine duties. This Black Chiffon looks good too: Beth Colley’s set is simple but elegant and Neil Gordon produces some right-looking costumes with a particularly attractive green suit for Alicia to attend her trial in.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton