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Still Life and Red Peppers

21 November 2017

A Delight and a Joy

Still Life and Red Peppers

by Noel Coward, Double Bill

Teddington Theatre Club at the Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre until 25th November

Review by Eleanor Lewis

It’s probably compulsory to use the word ‘iconic’ whenever discussing Brief Encounter.  I imagine questions are asked and authorities notified if the word doesn’t feature at least once in any review of it. So I’ll get it out of the way now before moving on: Noel Coward’s Still Life is the play from which the iconic film Brief Encounter grew and it, together with another short, one-act play Red Peppers can be seen at Hampton Hill Theatre this week in Teddington Theatre Club’s production directed by Mandy Stenhouse.

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Fiona Auty’s set for Still Life is perfect. It’s obviously the first thing you see as you enter Hampton Hill’s Coward Studio and it’s delightful: a small, tidy and cosy 1930s station refreshment room, flowers on the tables, small cardboard menus. It makes you long for the days when railway stations actually had these places, staffed with people who poured tea for you and served you pastries which would be accompanied by real cutlery as opposed to wooden sticks. Noel Coward sings gently from the wireless in the background and trains can occasionally be heard arriving and leaving outside the window, Tom Shore’s lighting is soft but businesslike.

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Into this beautifully created little world come the formidable Myrtle, manageress of the refreshment room, directing operations from behind her beautifully arranged counter, and waitress Beryl, together with ticket collector Albert and other characters with small but expertly written roles. These characters set the scene and establish their relationships with each other until the main players arrive on the set, one with a familiar piece of grit in her eye and the other to gallantly help her remove it and thereby fire the spark which begins one of Britain’s best known and most agonising romantic dramas.

Tracy Frankson and Charlie Golding played the famous Laura and Alec, both actors giving accomplished and efficient performances in roles more difficult than they seem. Laura and Alec are neither heroic nor particularly unusual characters, but ordinary – 1930s middle class ordinary, but ordinary nonetheless. They are anyone who has fallen in love with someone they aren’t officially committed to and then battled with their integrity because of it. To bring these characters to life and then to carry an audience with them as they fall in love and consequently struggle with the natural course of their affair is no easy task, particularly as Coward only allows them to interact with each other within the walls of the station tea room.

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Tracy Frankson and Charlie Golding rose to the challenge and took their first performance audience with them all the way. I wondered a little at Charlie Golding’s use of a constantly softened, gentle voice of the type used by some adults when speaking to small children, as it seemed unnecessary, but it didn’t detract from his performance. Where voices are concerned though, the 1930s-40s upper class accent is too easily parodied to go for it wholesale (see Victoria Wood’s Brief Encounter sketch and many others) but possibly a few clipped vowels from time to time between Alec and Laura would have matched the ‘I should say so and no mistake’ accents of the station staff but these are only details against what were two strong performances.

Talking of the ‘lower orders’, Samantha McGill’s Myrtle was marvellous. She was totally engaging, entertaining and real, as was Andy Smith as ticket collector Albert, the beau she dangled at arm’s length … or closer … to the delight of both of them and all of the audience. They were a joy to watch. It’s worth noting too that the level of professionalism on view on the stage at all times – particularly for a first performance – was impressive. Focus naturally switched between the refreshment staff and Alec and Laura but at all times everyone on stage whether speaking or not was occupied appropriately and naturally, a credit to the actors and the director’s attention to detail.

The second play to be seen was Red Peppers. This very short play could be seen in its entirety as a barbed comment on the draining effect of a life touring in vaudeville. Husband and wife double act Lily and George Pepper are, as aptly described in the programme, “on their way down the ladder of success”. The two stagger through a song and dance number Has Anybody Seen Our Ship and then retreat to their cluttered dressing room – another impressive set – where they snipe mercilessly at each other but come together as one to highlight the shortcomings of the musical director and then the theatre manager, nicely played by Andy Hewitt and Edz Barrett. Noisy arguments ensue, disturbing the rest of Miss Mable Grace, a Shakespearean actress somewhat past her best, who floats in and provides an opportunity for new types of sarcasm to be employed by George and Lily who have little time for such types. Helen Smith is appropriately oblivious and other-worldly in this cameo role. The hapless two conclude the play, newly costumed, with a rendition of Men about Town which comes to a disastrous end, sabotaged by the enraged musical director.

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It is a delight to watch and very funny, and tribute must be paid to the skill on show from Lottie Walker and Steve Taylor, two strong actors more than capable of getting everything that is to be got out of Lily and George but whilst doing so they are required to change out of one costume and into another, apply additional make-up, arrange and fit wigs and ultimately consume a plate of steak and chips each. Impressive.

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Still Life and Red Peppers are two highly enjoyable plays, well produced and well directed. The level of consistency of performance across both productions was striking, every performance was rounded, every detail attended to. Highly recommended.

Eleanor Lewis
November 2017

Photography by Joe Stockwell

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From → Drama, Musicals, Reviews

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