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Something Unnatural? Black Chiffon

11 April 2017

Black Chiffon

by Lesley  Storm

SMDG at St Mary’s Hall, Hampton, 6th to 8th April

Review by Eleanor Marsh

Black Chiffon was written and originally produced in 1949 as a vehicle for Flora Robson.   It is definitely of its time, highly traditional and the first question that entered my head when I saw that St Mary’s Drama Group was to present the play in the round was “how will it work?”.   I’m pleased to say that I needn’t have worried.   Jean Wood’s blocking was spot on – none of the characters ever masked anyone else and it was never obvious that backs were turned to the audience.    The set, too was excellent – and a lesson to anyone who thinks that “detail” has to mean over- crowding.   Just enough furniture and props to give the impression of upper middle class comfort in the days when lunch was often a paste sandwich followed by a tinned peach but  there was always a plentiful supply of spirits for a pre and post prandial cocktail.

The play opens with the “young set” of the cast – bride to be Louise (Katie Rainbow), and her future sister in law, Thea (Catherine de Roure).   Both actresses could have stepped straight off an Agatha Christie movie set – perfect accents, hair dos and costumes, but sadly they  were perhaps a little too laid back and certainly did nothing at this early stage to allay the fear that the piece itself was going to be too dated for a modern audience.   Admittedly they were not gifted with terribly interesting lines and their main raison d’etre seemed purely to be to set the scene, which is a pretty thankless task.   James Henry completed the trio of “youngsters” as Roy, the son of the house and soon to be bridegroom.

Black Chifforn 2

With any play that is written as a vehicle for a specific performer it is always difficult to envisage anyone else in the role.    Mandy Stenhouse stepped into what must have been the most daunting of shoes and did so with aplomb.   Mandy is a fine actress and played the role of Alicia with such flair that I for one paid no further heed to Dame Flora once she stepped on stage.   As her husband, Robert, Keith Wait played the archetypical “man of the house”, demanding his pink gin from his long suffering son and demonstrating a distinct lack of empathy with his family.   In fact once Mandy and Keith entered the scene the play instantly turned from “dated” to “period piece”.   These two were not caricatures of a bygone age but two very real characters who just happened to be around in the late 1940’s.    At this point the play became interesting and everyone’s energy levels increased.

Black Chiffon 3

The scenes between Father and Son were particularly strong, with both actors portraying the “buttoned up Englishman” very well indeed.   And sterling support was given from Sue McMillan as Nannie and Charles Halford, as Dr Hawkins, whose frustration at the final outcome (as decreed by Alicia) was palpable – and highly understandable.  (I felt the same.)

Alicia as the main protagonist was obviously in for a more interesting evening than we were at first given to believe.   Nipping out for a joint of meat with which to feed the future in-laws is not great entertainment.   Being arrested for shop lifting (especially when one has “lifted“ a black chiffon negligee ) is much more the ticket and of course, this is the main plotline.   There has no doubt been much made of the nature of the mother – son relationship in this play and Louise’s line at the end of the first act stating that she herself wears black chiffon in bed seemed a little heavy handed.   For those of us who believed that the relationship was “unnatural” it didn’t need to be underlined and for those of us in the camp that believed that Alicia was over-compensating for the lack of affection shown to Roy by his father (more likely to my mind) it was just unnecessary and a stab at a cheap thrill.

Black Chiffon 1

Photography by Christina Bulford

It is very difficult to imagine in this day and age that theft of a nightdress would result in three months’ imprisonment, but such was the unfortunate fate of poor Alicia who in order to save her family the indignity  of scandal about her relationship with Roy (her best defence) opted to plead guilty and suffer the consequences.   Little wonder that Dr Hawkins was frustrated!

Once the play got going it was very enjoyable indeed.   Would I see it again?  No.   Am I pleased I’ve had a rare opportunity to see what amounts to a classic of its time?  Absolutely.   And I am doubly pleased to have seen it done so well in the unforgiving space of St Mary’s Church Hall (congratulations to Bill Bulford, by the way for creating some atmospheric lighting in such a difficult space).

St Mary’s have generously shared a hidden gem with us by producing this play.   It was very obviously a labour of love by a dedicated team both on and off stage.   The night, though belonged to Ms Stenhouse who remained poised and elegant throughout whilst slowly crumbling inside.  Her control as she ran through the complete gamut of emotions  was a delight to behold and she stylishly carried the show in the way that “stars” are supposed to carry “star vehicles” Bravissima!

Eleanor Marsh

April 2017

See also: Hidden Psychological Depths: Black Chiffon

Editor’s Note:  Black Chiffon was last performed in Hampton on 12th to 14th February 1953 by Teddington Theatre Club at Ronayce Hall, Hampton Wick.

 

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  1. Hidden Psychological Depths: Black Chiffon | Mark Aspen

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