Ladies in Lavender

Original screen play by Charles Dance Adapted for the stage by Shaun McKenna Original Short story by William J. Locke
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Hayley Mills and Belinda Lang Credit: Robert Day

The much loved 2004 film starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith has been skilfully and sympathetically adapted by McKenna to give us a stage play equally, if not more, moving than the film. Following in the footsteps of the two Dames could have been daunting, but the casting is perfect, each character bringing a little of themselves to each role and, to my ear, the accents of all are spot-on, not dropping for an instant.

The story is a seemingly simple one of two elderly and refined ladies living in a cottage in a small Cornish fishing village in 1937 when a strange young man is washed up on the beach, hardly alive. These two have put aside their hopes and dreams, age has caught them unawares, but one at least still has an unfulfilled longing inside her which awakens as they take in the stranger and nurse him back to health. His arrival also causes unrest, jealousy and suspicion among the community, especially when (with a war with Germany on the horizon) heard to be conversing in German with the aloof (and possibly Russian) painter Olga, but this talented young violinist has his own dream, finally fulfilled beyond anything he thought possible.

The venues range from cottage to shore, garden to village pub, tricky on stage, but Liz Ashcroft has quite brilliantly combined them all in one set, concentrating first on the cluttered cottage interior where the sisters sit knitting and listening to the shipping forecast while a violent storm rages outside.

McKenna has embellished the tale with a little more detail giving some idea of their lives beforehand, things which were only vaguely hinted at in the film, and his programme notes also explain the meaning of the title which I had never previously understood. Also events at the time are mentioned “Everything happening in Spain and Germany” and “the Duke let us down badly, I’m afraid”.

Belinda Lang is the elder sister Janet, more realistic and sensible than her pretty, dreamy sibling Ursula (Hayley Mills), but both chatter, laugh and argue in the way of sisters as they remember the past, but with Janet becoming concerned and worried seeing the infatuation of her elderly sister for a young boy. The Polish / Jewish boy, Andrea, is a charming Robert Rees very convincingly and haltingly learning English from Ursula, while (in the way of boys) being mischievous and getting drunk at the village harvest festival, something which made housekeeper Dorcas laugh a lot as she gives him the job of spreading manure. I just loved Carol MacReady’s Dorcas with her straightforward, no-nonsense humour made even funnier with her Cornish accent.

Robert Duncan is the doctor—avuncular at the start, but increasingly jealous as he sees his patient becoming friendly with Olga. He had his eye on her himself but Abigail Thaw “actively enjoying her solitude” brushes him off with supercilious aloofness.

This tender, beautiful and emotionally moving play will stay with you for a long time with memories of the exceptional performances and the aesthetically beautiful music from the film, played exquisitely on soundtrack by Edgar Bailey. It is this music which finally releases Ursula from her obsession allowing her to let Andrea go and to follow his own path.

Touring to Oxford, Malvern, Bath, Richmond, Nottingham and Truro.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor