Robert Hamlin & Iris Theatre
St Paul's Church, Covent Garden
Ellen Terry died sixty years ago, at the age of 81, having retired from the stage in 1920. There can be few alive today who saw her act but her name is still one that is known to any with an interest in the history of our theatre. She was born in theatrical digs in Coventry, with parents and siblings on the stage (and her grand nephew was John Gielgud). She made her debut aged eight playing Mamillius in A Winter's Tale for Charles Kean at the Princess Theatre. Fifty years later, in 1906, a committee of eminent men organised a celebration of her theatrical jubilee, and it is that event that gives a structure to this play, written for Tina Gray and first seen twenty years ago. She has been performing it occasionally ever since, though this I believe is its West End debut, appropriately given in St Paul's, where Dame Ellen's ashes are encased on the south wall of the church.
Dramatist Richard Osborne also directs and has placed the action all around the church, increasing the contact that Miss Gray seems so effortlessly to establish with her audience, winning their affection just as her subject did. Tom Wilson's music, played on press night by cellist Nikki Kristy, is sparingly but very effectively used, sometimes only a single phrase; designer Trudy Marklew provides a travelling trunk of clothes and a few pieces of furniture that suggest a dressing room or an actress on tour and the building itself is used, with Benjamin Polya's lighting to suggest other locations for the memories she is sharing.
As she takes us through her life from her child roles - including Puck, when having painfully caught her foot in a trap she played on, bribed by a promise of double pay from Mrs Kean, to her great days at the Lyceum with Henry Irving and on to when she at last appeared in a play for Bernard Shaw and even her own funeral, which was a very gay affair it seems. Miss Gray does it beautifully, never stopping a seemingly spontaneous flow while slipping in and out of skirts and donning gowns, sharing the details of her marriages and lovers, and almost purring with pride in her children for whom she seems to have always provided, long into adulthood. For a brief period she lived happily in the countryside with their father, in a home they decorated to look like a Japanese print, concentrating on Mrs Beeton and domesticity rather than Shakespeare but for most of her life it was work work work - but fortunately she felt 'there's nothing better than work after all is there?'
The script cleverly manages to tell us a great deal about Dame Ellen and her life, showing off those qualities that charmed her friends and multitudes of admirers. It gives the opportunity for snippets of some of her famous roles, gives a lively picture of Irving in performance, and is witty and light-hearted, especially when discussing the all male committee that set up her Jubilee (including women would have meant including her suffragist daughter Edie ) and the all-male programme they planned for the celebration. She wasn't having that! It even finds a moment for her to hand out cups of tea to the cellist, the lighting operator and the stage manager (Heather Rose) who becomes part of the performance, always ready to hand just the right prop or help with dressing as well as doing the sound effects with coconut shells, wind machine and whistles as well as all the usual duties.
This is a delightful show and it fits beautifully in this venue. Miss Gray gives a spirited and touching performance rising to the challenge of the difficult acoustics. It plays for only a few nights. Catch it now if you can. I hope that it will be back in London soon so that more people have the chance to enjoy it.
Ends 19th October 2008
Reviewer: Howard Loxton