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Say Something Happened

7 March 2018

 

North by SW13

Say Something Happened

Barnes Community Players, OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, until 10th March

Review by Eleanor Lewis

[Barnes Community Players are currently reviving three one act plays by Alan Bennett at the Old Sorting Office in Barnes. Say Something Happened is the production title and that of one of the plays, A Visit from Miss Prothero and Green Forms being the other two.]

 

A Visit from Miss Prothero is, amongst other things, a masterclass in the destruction of one human being by another. Mr Dodsworth has recently retired from Warburtons. He’s happy in retirement, reading the paper, going bowling, enjoying his grandchildren and not really thinking about work at all when ex-colleague, Miss Prothero, pays a visit to bring him up to date on events at work (this is the late ‘70s, early ‘80s). Despite his initial lack of interest, Miss Prothero persists and gradually but inexorably fills him in on all the new developments since he left which have ultimately erased everything he spent his working life doing. By the time she leaves, Dodsworth is a tearful, broken wreck of a man.

Striking in this two-hander was Elizabeth Ollier, in full command of the role she had. She understood the embittered and vindictive character beneath Miss Prothero’s thin veil of courtesy and played her appropriately. She sneered without appearing to sneer (quite a skill) and managed an authentic, accurate northern accent, finding and delivering the appropriate emphasis in every line and at no point veering into ‘comedy northern woman’. Rodger Hayward Smith as Arthur Dodsworth, though perhaps a little too doddery for a man in his sixties, was an effective, gentle foil for his unwanted visitor and poignant in his misery at the end.

 

Say Something Happened is the story of an elderly couple Elizabeth and Arthur Rhodes who are visited by social worker June Potter on a well-meaning but misguided mission from the council to make sure they’re OK and interview them as to how well prepared they are for the onset of old age and the loss of independence. The visit becomes a generational battle for control with the older couple seeming to be in charge most of the time and the inexperienced and gauche June attempting to help. The skill in the writing and, one hopes, the performance is that you are shown reality gradually dawning on Elizabeth and Arthur despite their apparent victory over the wide-eyed June. Though dismissive of the ‘HELP’ leaflet June leaves for possible future emergencies, Elizabeth keeps it, she has begun to feel fear.

Judi Phipps and Trevor Hartnup as Elizabeth and Arthur were believable as a couple settled in their habits and philosophical about the future. Francesca Stone as June Potter was however, never really a match for them. Leaving aside the fact that Potter’s accent seemed to hail from somewhere a considerable distance from any northern town, there was no real struggle for superiority between these three. Francesca Stone’s portrayal of an almost childlike June Potter, though endearing, was not entirely believable.

 

Green Forms finds two colleagues, Doris and Doreen, passing the time of day gossiping and reading magazines. Work doesn’t actually feature in their working day until in a cleverly crafted gradual ramping up of tension in which pink and then green forms become objects of terror, they begin to understand that reform is heading their way in the form of an unseen figure – Dorothy Binns – and their peaceful world is about to come crashing down.

Annie Collenette and Marie Bushell did a reasonable job as Doris and Doreen. Marie Bushell’s performance was particularly well observed, the defensive pulling of her skirt over her knees in response to Doris’ unexpectedly blunt retort: “… if you say ‘try Personnel’ I’ll staple your tits together”, was nicely judged.

 

There is sometimes a tendency with Alan Bennett plays, for directors to focus on the comedy and produce a kind of Benny Hill interpretation and there were elements of this in Tuesday night’s performance. In the first play there was an emphasis on Mr Dodsworth’s “appliance” and Miss Prothero over-emphasises “chiropodist” with a hard ‘c’. Similarly in Say Something Happened, Arthur Rhodes describes carbohydrates as “cardboard hydrates”. It works if that’s what you’re aiming for, the audience laughed heartily but Barnes is deep in the south of England and possibly labouring under the mistaken impression that northern folk in general are a) hilarious, and b) quite dim.

More importantly though, taking the Benny Hill route ignores the depth and quality of the writing. In A Visit from Miss Prothero, Miss Prothero completely invalidates Mr Dodsworth for no reason other than her own personal satisfaction. In Say Something Happened a contented, retired couple are forced to confront the prospect of old age, incapacity and death. In Green Forms, one woman wholly dependent on the tiresome work she is failing to do is willing to throw her friend and colleague to the wolves at the first sign of trouble, and the appearance in the play’s final seconds of the dreaded Ms Binns heralds the arrival of the new 24/7 world of work we in the 21st century are all too familiar with. These little plays are more than just three comic turns.

Staging was minimal and adequate, just. A cardboard-looking door which featured in all 3 plays was clearly fragile and all cast members who used it, visibly careful with it. I think alongside Miss Prothero, a visit from a carpenter might be wise.

Say Something Happened was an opening night performance on Tuesday. Overall it worked but was a little shaky, not all players were fully confident with their lines and the way in which some lines were delivered gave the impression they did not fully understand what they were saying. Northern accents (with the exception of Elizabeth Ollier’s) ranged from areas vaguely ‘up north’ to far beyond, as far possibly as Pretoria and the Netherlands. There are few things funnier than a northern accent – to a southerner anyway – or so it would seem. An announcement before the performance began about fire exits and interval timings was delivered in a cod northern accent. It’s worth bearing in mind that if you find the occasional real, live northern person in your audience you run the risk not only of offending them (tough though they are) but also, and more importantly, ensuring that they do not take you seriously.

Alan Bennett always sells, he has a devoted fan base. Barnes Community Players is an amateur company with a limited budget and a friendly local audience, which can lead to complacency. If they are to take this production to Edinburgh they need to raise their game a little. I’m sure they can, though, and I wish them lots of luck (and a better door).

Eleanor Lewis
March 2018

Photograph by Thornton Ramsden

 

 

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From → Drama, Fringe, Reviews

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