Ladies in Lavender

Mon 14th – Sat 19th May 2012

reviews

James Fennemore

at 08:06 on 15th May 2012

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There was a noticeably small student demographic present at ‘Ladies in Lavender’. I’m not surprised. Charming as it may be, this adaptation of the Charles Dance film treads a very dangerous path between the delightful and the downright twee.

The play sees Andrea (Robert Rees), a young Polish violinist, washed up on the shores near the house of two spinster sisters, Ursula and Janet (Hayley Mills and Belinda Lang). They take him under their collective wing, teach him English, and in a not-so-unexpected turn of events, fall for him and his playing. Originally adapted from a 1916 short story by William Locke, you would be forgiven in thinking that this had been lifted from the rosy pink shelf of the writer’s ‘Mills and Boon’ collection. All this, with the addition of elderflower cordial, plum cake, harvest dances and quaint parochialism. It’s certainly of the ‘Lark Rise to Downton Downstairsford’ ilk. There’s even a character called Dorcas.

This is the production’s weakness as much as its strength. At twice the length of even the cosiest Sunday evening period pieces, attending is something of an endurance test of just how much dainty sentimentality you can take. A vast amount of effort has been put into making a lovely set that looks just like one of those glazed china ornaments you can only find at village craft shops, and which are best dispensed with at the China Smash event at that selfsame village’s annual fete.

It must be difficult acting in a play in which the only other people to have played your parts are Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Indeed, in the first act the characters of Ursula and Janet lack the chutzpah necessary to throw themselves into relief against the so easily flattening frame of the production’s aesthetic. The fawning of the two women about the bedside of their shipwrecked Orpheus, though amiable, is a touch belittling to the womankind for whom they are ambassadors on stage. In the second act, however, the characters gain welcome definition, and their developing relationships become genuinely poignant and moving.

For all the easy criticism of the production’s over-sentimentality and occasional sickly-sweetness, it is a witty, entertaining piece of theatre that handles its quaintness with a sense of style and charm. Before going, I’d advise listening to Joshua Bell’s original soundtrack, which has been preserved from the film; if it strikes you as a beautifully romantic piece evoking a watercolour-painted image of rural Britain, then ‘Ladies in Lavender’ will be as good a show as any. If, after two minutes, you feel a little as if you’re drowning in herbal tea, then perhaps the relative appeals of the production might prove too much to bear.

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Emma Yandle

at 10:17 on 15th May 2012

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The programme for 'Ladies in Lavender' included an interesting piece by Shaun McKenna, the writer who adapted the stage play from Charles Dance's well-known film script. He writes of Chekhov as an inspiration for his work: "In his plays, small personal acts or omissions become things that echo through eternity. I'm nowhere near his league but I did want to capture something of his sense that small can contain the epic." Reading this before the curtain raised, I was a conditioned audience member and I think he did capture this a little. Yet I'm uncertain that I would have left with this feeling had he not alerted me to the aim. For the overwhelming feeling of the production was simply that it was charming. The set, designed by Liz Ascroft, was charming with its front porch of a cliffside cottage and its naturalistically dressed sitting room complete with piano, wireless, knitting and cakes. Hayley Mills, as Ursula, was really really charming. Whilst the rest of the cast felt a little amateurish, she carried the production with the open and innocent manner that is so endearing in a young child or an elderly woman. I cannot emphasise enough that if the adjectives you like for your theatre are sweet and delightful and the feeling you want to leave with is nostalgia for an era you've never known, then certainly go to see 'Ladies in Lavender'. I use these words with absolute sincerity, leaving the theatre feeling cosy and happy, rather like I'd had the hot cocoa that ends the evenings of sisters Ursula and Janet in the play. However, do not expect 'Ladies in Lavender' to be troubling and probing into the tragedy of the little things. If this is, as the programme claims, is its aim, then I'd have to say it fails. Back stories of the First World War are glanced at, but with the conventional phrases that have come to feel like platitudes; hints at the loneliness of the unmarried woman of the '30s were never delivered to any substance. The play's dramatic centre: a tragic and uncomfortable love, felt sad, but more misguided and sweet than desperately moving. The ending was not exactly happy, but had an overblown sense of resolution, of a triumph that I do not think the play ever evidenced. However, the majority of the audience did not seem to be expecting anything truly thought-provoking from the production, guffawing at all the lines I thought were perhaps hinting at something more: the sad suggestion of cocoa to cure unrequited love being met with great enjoyment. I felt the merits of its sweetness outweighed its failure for the small things to "echo through eternity", but fans of Chekhov should probably steer clear.

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