Still Life / Red Peppers
In 1935 Noël Coward opened at the Opera House in Manchester with two programmes each of three short plays under the title Tonight at 8.30. By the time they came into the West End at the Phoenix the following January he had tried out some alternatives and went on adding two more so that, by May, ten different one-acters had been produced. Nine of them were now grouped to form three different entertainments. Still Life (which was later filmed under the title Brief Encounter), the story of a doctor and a respectable home counties housewife who develop a liaison after a casual meeting when he removes a smut from her eye, was the last to be added. Red Peppers, a picture of a bickering husband and wife music hall act and their battles with theatre manager and musical director, was in the very first programme.
An audience in 1935 wanted value for money; none of the fifty-minute stand alone shows you find offered today. Here producer Léonie Scott-Matthews at least gives us two and, with one running just under half an hour and the other more than an hour plus an interval (for resetting the stage and costume changes as well as audience comforts), they make up an entertaining evening.
Red Peppers, which opens the bill, is topped and tailed by the couple performing a number from their act, the delightful 'Has Anyone Seen My Ship?' which gets a lively presentation from David Raymond and Déirdra Whelan as George and Lily Pepper (unlike Julie Andrews and Daniel Massey in the Gertrude Lawrence bio-picture Star, they play it sober). They get their laughs on all those old chestnuts, though still giving just a hint that it has passed its sell-by date, as we discover George's parents' act had used the same material.
Back in their dressing room Aline Waites's production drives the pace at breakneck speed as the couple squabble, then stand together against the overbearing manager (John Sears) and vindictive MD (Cameron McGarva). Almost too fast at times, a little variation in pace might make Vivienne Brown's overblown performance as actress Mabel Grace not seem so out of scale. This is perhaps the way variety artists saw the legit intruder who was getting better billing but it goes a bit too far.
In Still Life Waites avoids any hint of the sentimental romanticism of David Lean's film version. Elliot James and Fiona Graham are a very young-looking Dr Alec Harvey and Laura Jesson; one imagines their children must still be in infancy. This isn't a couple snatching at love before it is too late, nor are they swept up by a grand passion. Their relationship becomes something of a game, though a very serious one. Graham's Laura, escaping briefly from a too settled life, is excited perhaps by risk and breaking her own taboos. James' doctor, though his manners are charming, suggests an element of manipulation, a possibility that he's opportunistically exploiting the situation. You can't be sure: is this insincerity or refined middle-class restraint?
What comes through beautifully is the way in which Coward contrasts middle-class behaviour with the open and natural displays of affection between Myrtle who runs the station café and ticket collector Albert (a well matched Déirdra Whelan and David Raymond) and her assistant Beryl and Stanley from the platform staff (Becky George and Cameron McGarva). Vivienne Brown, playing a friend of Laura's family who arrival makes it impossible for Laura to properly say goodbye to Alec, gets this self-obsessed insensitive intruder absolutely right.
Runs until 13th March 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton