Friday, 25 November 2016

Review After October

After October
by Rodney Ackland

The Wolves of Hampstead

At the end of the "The Wolf of Wall Street", an ex-rogue trader holds up a pen and invites the multicultural participants in his global touring seminar to invent a good story to sell the product. (32 seconds into the video link).This scene popped into our thoughts as we watched Rodney Ackland's 1936 play, After October.

Of course, the recent movie is about financial wheeler dealing and only one off-stage character in Ackland's screwball comedy is a convicted thief, although there is some 1930s' product placement.

Still, this two-act semi-autobiographical piece is filled with stories and plots brought to the impecunious Hampstead household by the widowed, still attractive Rhoda Monkhams (a nicely judged performance of grace under pressure by Sasha Waddell), a former Gaiety Girl, and her children including playwright son Clive (boyishly intense Adam Buchanan).

The play follows the trials and tribulations of the debt-ridden family. This includes Clive's sisters Joan (Allegra Marland), a would-be artist currently the lover and secretary of hard-drinking married text book publisher Alec Mant (Jonathan Oliver);  and Lou (Peta Cornish), whose musical theatre ambitions have melted into the reality of being a taxi dancer while her charming but lightweight husband Armand (Andrew Cazanave Pin), cast adrift by his family, serves in a wine shop.

All their hopes are pinned on Clive, a Grub Street hack  and aspiring playwright, whose anti-war play is about to be put on. Even if, in a play set in 1935, during the Spanish Civil War, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and Winston Churchill warned about Nazi Germany, it's perhaps not the most auspicious time.

If Clive succeeds (strange as it may seem now, a West End hit at that time could turn a struggling writer into a millionaire) it could also trigger a chain reaction in other directions.

The career of his working class fellow writer,  dark and brooding poet Oliver (lugubrious Patrick Osborne), could also twist around if Clive follows through on his promise to be his financial guarantor. As it is, he's reduced to selling bristle brushes door to door and has a penchant for entering the Monkhams's home through the bay window like a spy or a burglar.

Their housekeeper Mrs Batley (Josie Kidd in a finely tuned understated performance) appreciates her treatment by Rhoda for whom she keeps unpaid tradesmen sweet. But she has her troubles, retreating to the cinema to avoid her bullying Mussolini-loving son-in-law, and could find a new role if Clive succeeds.

It's only eccentric Marigold Ivens (Beverly Klein), seemingly the woman least likely, who appears to be coyly laying little claim on Clive. He enjoys her company, even if she harbours her own, apparently vague, thespian ambitions.

Now we admit to having a soft spot for Clive, especially as he's left-handed like your very own reviewer and his chaotic paperwork with orange Allen Lane Penguin paperbacks scattered round his writing space reminded us of something closer to home.

Clive himself would like to join the moneyed rentier class, with his name up in lights over a hit play. He would also be able to marry the lodger, the  manicurist Frances (Jasmine Blackborow), whose rent helps supplement the family's meagre income, grabbing her away from stick-in-the-mud retired colonial civil servant Brian (Stephen Rashbrook). 

The snug Finborough space is transformed cleverly by designer Rosanna Vize into a light and airy Hampstead living room complete of course with bay window. After October is fluently directed by Oscar Toeman with only a few lapses of pace, perhaps owing to the almost cinematic nature  of the piece.

There's a feel of Noel Coward's Hay Fever and, transatlantically, George Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family while retaining its own feather-light individuality.

For, despite the the superficial frothiness of the plot, there are clever meaningful literary pastiches and a subtle gender mash up. One character when told Clive has written a drama even innocently asks if it's a musical comedy or a detective story. Plus ça change ...

This proves to be far from a playwriting equivalent of a quota quickie, even if Ackland himself seemed to have suffered the burdens of and enjoyed little of the success of his illustrious playwriting circle. With its acute grasp of the entertainment industry's line of dependency and sly, sharp but humane sense of the ridiculous, After October sold itself to us and it's a TLT green light.

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