Stories Before Bedtime: Summertime
George Grossmith, Dodie Smith & Virginia Woolf
This is part of a new programme of lunchtime, early-evening and late-night performances that the Criterion has initiated. There has already been a lunchtime presentation with leading critics talking about the latest openings (which was free), a lunchtime interview with Michael Ball and a reading at 5.30 of Joe Orton's Ruffian on the Stair.
This is the first of a series of readings by well known actors which is being presented in association with the Reader Association and Vintage Classics and sponsored by Hendrick's Gin. There is a programme of Sporting Stories coming in August. From 26 July-12 August there will be a series of lunchtime conversations in which sport meets culture between some of the world's most eminent Olympians, past and present, and a gathering of actors, writers, directors and presenters. In the afternoon (various times) there is a new play by Serge Cartwright set in Olympic Stratford and yet to be announced late-night comedy.
It is an initiative I heartily applaud. Too many of our theatres lie dormant out of regular performance times, resources that are very underused (especially when the play is a short one). Few older theatres have front of house facilities that make it easy to open them through the day as bars or restaurants so a much wider approach to programming may help provide the income to keep fabric in repair and finance improvements.
I have to confess to some doubts about going to the theatre to be read to; a play reading is fine, but something that is not written with dramatic intention? Being read to when you are little is different but books for me are something I like to explore for myself. Even with poetry, where its sound is important for it is written to be spoken, it has to be done well. Authors reading their work at book launches can sometimes prove painful, actors usually do a better job but it does depend on the material.
The selection on this occasion was drawn from Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (the novel not the play) and Virginia Woolf's The New Dress, written when she was writing Mrs Dalloway.
When the audience had set themselves up with Hendrick's complimentary gin and tonics, Mathew Horne kicked off with Mr Pooter's diaries beginning at the time when he has just moved into a new house. It began very formally with him sitting at a table with a brass reading lamp at one side of the stage. That's not an easy position from which to build up a rapport with the audience. It seems to me that you can either present a story with a dramatic flourish or literally tell it, what you don't want is to be buried head in book.
Horne certainly wasn't, but he was very static and tradesmen ringing the doorbell and other sound effects distracted rather than developed an atmosphere. However, Pooter's jottings are sufficiently fragmentary to enable a very natural conversational delivery and when later in the evening Horne reappeared with a couple of paint cans, standing centre-stage to tell us about his passion for painting everything red, he was able to establish that audience contact, and again in a final appearance describing the disasters associated with a Lord Mayoral reception at the Mansion House.
Sonya Cassidy read the extract from I Capture the Castle, mainly the narrator's re-enactment of a midsummer ritual. She too began at the desk but director Samuel Hodges soon had her centre stage on a pile of palettes as though at the castle's tower top, then with a glowing bonfire before her smoke billowing out around her. At first her delivery was too fast but, with the help of some dialogue allowing her to use character voices she got the measure of the piece, but the fire was a barrier between her and the audience.
The Woolf short story was engagingly read by Miranda Richardson who had the advantage of being seated on a downstage chaise longue with nothing between her and the audience. The other texts are written with a first person narrator, which makes them more suitable for performance, but this account of Mabel Waring's embarrassment at Mrs Dalloway's party has a lot of interior monologue and, framed by Mr Pooter made a good contrast.
I wasn't entirely won over by these readings. Sound effects and visuals can be helpful but here they were often a distraction. You don't need to illustrate what is described and if suiting action to the word it may be better to mime any props that way it is easier to discard them when you need to move on—and if you use sound then make sure that your storyteller hears it.
Matthew Horne's Grossmith extracts for me were the most effective, helped by the nature of the material, but there was a lot to be learned from the way these readings were presented which perhaps will make future such programmes more effective.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton