Separate Tables

Terence Rattigan
Salisbury Playhouse Production
Salisbury Playhouse

Separate Tables Credit: Richard Davenport

You’ve got to hand it to the technical guys at Salisbury Playhouse. I mean, they’ve just finished having to turn their conventional proscenium arch theatre into an acting space with three separate locations and all-round audience for Bedroom Farce and now they’ve had to devise even more complex strategies for Separate Tables, Terence Rattigan’s sixty-year-old exploration of ageing, poverty and loneliness.

The work consists of two plays, both set in the same Bournemouth hotel dining room; seven elegantly laid tables with circular table cloths and a single place setting and just one with two places. And this is where Gareth Machin’s idea to have the audience placed behind and in front of the action is so inspirational.

In the 1954 production, which followed after Rattigan’s highly successful plays Winslow Boy, Browning Version and Deep Blue Sea, even in the Playhouse production of 1956, all the tables have to face the audience, that being the convention of the time.

In this version, because we can see across the stage to the other side, we find ourselves involved, almost part of the scene, with the actors being placed much more naturally, facing each other and not just us, which really brought it alive.

In the first play, we are introduced to the characters: the intolerant and domineering Mrs Railton-Bell (Jane How) and her friend, the impoverished Lady Matheson (Audrey Palmer), together with the young doctor and his wife and the other guests, including aspiring politician and journalist John Malcolm (Robert Perkins), who has a drink problem, and his ex-wife, Ann Shankland (Kirsty Besterman).

Will the kindly manageress of the hotel, Miss Cooper (Carol Starks) herself in love with Malcolm (not sure why), be able to overcome her own feelings and bring about a reconciliation between the two? And is this what we, the audience, really want? We’ve got the interval to think about it.

In the second play, Malcolm and Ann have gone, the doctor and his wife have a five-month old baby (not sure why they’re still living in the hotel) and there are two new residents, the strangely gauche and immature thirty-three-year-old Sybil (Kirsty Besterman), daughter of the opinionated control-freak Mrs Railton-Bell, together with the self-styled Major Pollock (Robert Perkins).

That these two misfits should be attracted to each seems unlikely, but when it happens we are convinced. When Major Pollock admits, "it meant everything to me, being saluted, being called ‘Sir’", we can empathise with that and when Miss Railton-Bell at last finds the courage to stand and defy her domineering mother we’re all on her side and inwardly cheering.

The two most endearing characters must, of course, be Miss Cooper, always providing a sympathetic ear and genuinely concerned for the emotional, as well as physical, well-being of all her guests and Doreen the waitress (Emma Noakes), dispensing cheerful banter with the guests and applying occasional much-needed common sense.

A fine production, then, and if there’s a bit of a niggle about that reference to the West Hampshire Weekly (the Bournemouth paper is the Echo—has been since 1900—and Bournemouth is in Dorset) then the fault is all Rattigan’s. Certainly not that of Salisbury Playhouse.

Reviewer: Anne Hill