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When the Lilac Blooms, My Love

Jane Huxley
Leicester Square Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

Judy Cornwell, as a funny old bird who seems to spend most of her time talking to a parakeet, is stuck on stage knitting as the audience come in. Always addressed as Miss Mackenzie, she is a retired schoolteacher who is a tenant with a room upstairs, apparently allowed to use the sitting room when the owners are out, but what she's doing in this play is much less clear, apart from being a means of passing messages between its other characters.

The house belongs to an Italian immigrant who came to Britain as an unmarried mom and the construction worker she married. He now carries a beer-gut while she is very glamorous, beautifully dressed and with a make-up that must take half the morning to put on. She's lost her accent, though she does say "Madonna!" where a Brit might say "My God!" and keeps champagne ready to be popped into the fridge should it be called for by way of celebration. They seem a loving, if ill-matched couple until her pregnant daughter, a student at the LSE, turns up with the reluctant student lawyer father expecting to be taken in. Perhaps Brighton is full of households just like this but I found it about as real as the upright spikes of lilac that the wife offers the law student as a token of her affection.

Fly Davis's permanent set simultaneously presents the Brighton living room and its surrounding garden so director Simon Beyer imaginatively places the opening scene, a platform of Victoria station, along the rear and side of the auditorium, greatly helped by Samuel Charleston's sound design. Would that he had brought the same deftness to the rest of the play. Too many of its twelve scenes start and finish with people walking on, off and on again without anything being spoken; when anyone appears in the garden they walk through the house and on again with a wait off-stage while the presumably negotiate the kitchen and walk round the exterior.

The actors do what they can. Miss Cornwell always seems of the verge of being funny but is never given the opportunity. Instead she gets lines like "What would they say if they heard that love has perishable properties?" Behind her mascara Sally Farmiloe-Neville struggles with lust as she simultaneously tries to stick by her husband and Polly Bramwell shakes with emotion as her daughter. Steven Smith gives the law student a caddish ego but I couldn't see the erotic appeal both women were held by. It was Aidan Stephenson as the husband who momentarily took his shirt off. He was the one character who you did begin to feel for, though it was difficult to believe he would ever have spoken these lines.

In the husband with low self-esteem and the poor Italian who has turned herself into a sophisticated wife Miss Huxley has a pairing that would be far more interesting to explore than this familiar seeming plot. A writer with several novels apparently well received, this is her first play and she deserves marks for trying - but surely producer and director could have helped her with guidance.

Until 1st May 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton