On Golden Pond

Ernest Thompson
Salisbury Playhouse
Salisbury Playhouse

Annabel Leventon and Christian Rodska in On Golden Pond at Salisbury Playhouse Credit: Keith Pattison
Annabel Leventon and Emma Pallant in On Golden Pond at Salisbury Playhouse Credit: Keith Pattison

I think it says much for the growing reputation of Salisbury Playhouse in-house productions under its artistic director, Gareth Machin, that, on only the second night of On Golden Pond’s run, the theatre is completely sold out. Even the side seats. Not a ticket to be had. And how often does that happen in your average provincial theatre these days?

Written by Ernest Thompson, based on childhood memories of his parents’ holiday home in rural Maine and first produced in 1978 in New York, On Golden Pond is probably best known from its 1981 adaptation as the Henry Fonda / Katherine Hepburn film.

And there’s the first problem for director Ria Parry and designer James Button, the setting. In the film we wandered outside and experienced the lake, the sky and the wildlife. But how to show this on stage, when most of the action takes place inside the house?

The solution is ingenious. You cut away part of the house wall so that we can see the sky and the path down to the lake so that with much flyswatting, references to the weather and the constantly repeated call of the loons, we are convinced. We have the environment, where Norman (Christian Rodska) and his lovely, but much put-upon, wife Ethel (Annabel Leventon) have spent their summers for many years, firmly established in our imagination.

When we first meet them, it’s late spring and they’re just moving in. Norman is irritatingly irascible, didactic and egocentric, with nothing ahead of him but increasing disability and, ultimately, death, to dwell upon. It’s daughter Chelsea’s 42nd birthday coming up and she’s going to visit them. But Chelsea has chosen to remain childless which adds one more disappointment to Norman’s already crowded list.

Worse, Chelsea plans to visit Europe with her new boyfriend, Bill Ray (Ian Porter), a dentist. Can Bill’s thirteen-year-old son, Billy, stay with Norman and Ethel while they’re away?

Reluctantly, Norman agrees. And so we meet Billy Ray, sullen, cheeky, slouching and permanently attached to an enormous ghetto blaster. He’ll do his best but he really doesn’t want to be there.

This is Harry Emerson’s first professional appearance at the Playhouse. And what a great performance! His shambling gait and lazy American drawl reinforce all our latent prejudices about teenagers and, as he and Norman develop their relationship into that of teasing grandfather and jokey grandson, we are surprised to find how much we are beginning to care for both of them.

So what makes this play such a triumph? The dialogue, in part. The Norman / Ethel repartee is a joy.

And when, towards the end of the play, Ethel surprisingly tells Norman, ’You’re the sweetest man in the world and I’m the only one who knows it’, well, we can almost empathise with that. And it’s not going to be their last visit to Golden Pond, is it? They’ll be back next year. Of course they will.

The downside? On Golden Pond ends on 5 October. A pity. It deserves a long and happy transfer.

Reviewer: Anne Hill

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