Monday, 9 October 2017

Review A Day By The Sea

A Day By The Sea
by NC Hunter

The Sense Of An Ending

Taken at face value, A Day By The Sea is a languid post Second World War family drama, crafted, apparently, to mimic a Chekhov play. 

A fusty middle aged career diplomat Julian, a bachelor, has left his Paris posting for a short break with his widowed mother and his frail uncle at the family's seaside Dorset home.

In a past era, he and a playmate ranged over the beach and cliffs in a picture book childhood and there's certainly an elegaic feel to director Tricia Thorns' handsome production at Southwark Playhouse designed by Alex Marker.

But surely the piece's Chekhovian vibe is deliberately just a little over the top? For it's a curious piece, even with solid individual performances from a 10-strong cast. Yet as a play, written in the 1950s just before the advent of kitchen sink drama, it almost verges on a coded parody of its own genre.

The stock literary characters meander in stage left and right.

There's the dry stick diplomat Julian (John Sackville) who finds his assured position at home and abroad is in jeopardy. His mother Laura (Susan Tracy), as fit as a fiddle, tending the garden, apparently unembittered at being pushed aside from home ownership in an act of primogeniture arranged by her late husband and the white-haired solicitor (David Gooderson).

Ah, yes, the doddering solicitor whose sinecure seems to involve becoming energised by a tenant's expensive new - er - pigsty.

Ailing uncle David (David Whitworth) remembers real or imagined colonial adventures sitting in his bath chair. A doctor (David Acton), over fond of gin, is kept on to care for the old man but, we are told, is in an 'ambiguous' position.

The welfare of the unwitting medic is, in turn, the unasked-for concern of lovelorn spinster governess (Stephanie Willson). She looks after the children of outcast divorcee (Alix Dunmore) who came to the house as an orphan and now returns as a sophisticate.

So it's a house over-stuffed with literary and movie stereotypes and glimpses of other plots.

They, eventually, decide to take a picnic and the children scavenge for a shell on the oil-free idyllic beach, after Julian hears bad news from the office conveyed by a colleague (Hugh Sachs) and loosens up.

Yet the news, in spite of the play receiving its first performance back in 1953, two years after seismic Anglo-Soviet happenings in the foreign office, is hardly front page stuff.
TLT and her own motorised aide cannot believe that a 1950s London audience, also au fait with the lead actor's involvement in a real life scandal just before the opening night, would not have recognised a certain deliberate desperation and hollowness in the whole scenario of A Day By The Sea

The play itself feels like a workmanlike piece,  where each role is written in such a way that every actor can have his or her "turn" - in this, TLT supposes, it does also reflect a "Chekhovian" style.

Sackville as diplomat Julian and Dunmore (a dead ringer for Emma Thompson) as divorcee Frances are pitch perfect with good support from Stephanie Willson as governess Miss Mathieson, David Acton's private live-in doctor and David Whitworth as the invalid uncle. Susan Tracy grapples well with the slippery part of the mother. 

However this production could have done with a little more speed and vigour as the family's losses finally start to bite in the more hallucinogenic final scenes of what amounts to the fourth act in the old-fashioned structure of the play.

Maybe there should have been a little more left field thinking about how to pace the play for  the 21st century.

Even so, there's nice work in styling the production from costume designer Emily Stuart but the star of the show is truly Alex Marker's exquisite blue sky, warm brick and late summer glow design with its photo album framing.

Was it  TLT's overactive imagination which glimpsed something of the iPad and its "Do Not Disturb" crescent moon in the framing adding a welcome extra dimension to the play? If it were an accidental effect, it still worked well for us!

A Day By The Sea is an interesting piece set in the context of the 1950s. There's a parallel to contemporary British movies  with subtexts of imperial decline, Britain thrown back on having to cultivate its own garden and Soviet and American Cold War politics.

But it's also an insight as to why a new post-Second-World-War generation might have felt it was time to stop the London and civil service establishment occupying theatres and sneaking in home truths - but only for their kind of audience.

TLT began to feel the criticism of writers like ex-army man NC Hunter by critic Kenneth Tynan and the Royal Court generation had a pertinent literary point.

A fellow critic, Bernard Levin, remarked in a 1958 review of another Hunter play in The Spectator, "... for all its dabbling in grave social questions (are the rich really parasites? is it their fault?), [it] is only another of the machine's products.

"Everybody, as is the way with the machine, is made of cardboard, and although the cardboard is tricked out very nicely it remains cardboard ... only the dialogue, which is a cut above the general level of the play, saves the evening ... And the acting, of course."

After sitting through A Day By The Sea, the TLT machine thinks we know what he means and it's an amber light.

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