Writer: Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Director: Adrian Rawlins
Set Designer: Ed Ullyart
Lighting: Simon Bedwell
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Amanda in Noel Coward’s Private Lives famously commented on the potency of cheap music. While there is nothing cheap about the Fred Astaire chapter of the Great American Songbook, popular music – from Irish folk song to Marlene Dietrich via Astaire-Rogers classics – is certainly potent in focussing the audience’s emotional response to Adrian Rawlins’ excellent production of The Night Season.
In fact, despite strong and sympathetic performances by all the cast of seven, it’s the integrated nature of the production that leaves the strongest lasting impression. Rawlins, newly in place as East Riding Theatre’s Artistic Director, already has plenty of experience of the potential and limitations of Beverley’s converted church as a theatre – and the same can be said for designer Ed Ullyart and lighting man Simon Bedwell. The result is a production perfectly tailored to the venue.
Ullyart provides a nicely composite set, with living room and bedroom (to serve as two different locations), plus a vestigial upper storey where the three sisters’ heads bob out to comment on the batty activities of their grandma, or their drunken father is uncovered in various embarrassing positions. In Rawlins’ imaginative and economical production, space is found for the library and the beach and the lighting takes us from place to place seamlessly. When I Only Have Eyes for You begins, “Are the stars out tonight?”, they are – above the confused, but well-intentioned, drunks below.
Reviews of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play when it was first staged at the National Theatre in 2004 were unanimous in praising it, but also in finding antecedents and influences – and certainly, Lenkiewicz appears to know and loves Chekhov’s Three Sisters and a welter of Irish plays from Dancing at Lughnasa to Stones in his Pockets. What all these have is the ability to switch from comedy to sadness, to find farcical humour and human drama in the same characters. The ERT production of The Night Season gauges this precarious balance of tone perfectly.
The play is episodic over a fair period of time, set in a dysfunctional family in a small Irish town. Events are sequential, relationships start, progress or end, but no specific conclusion is reached, except for the death of the grandmother which is predicted in the opening minutes. The most important character in many ways never appears, the mother of the three sisters, who decamped to London 15 years previously.
Her mother, Lily, talks to her constantly; her daughters either resent her or long to make contact with her; her husband, Patrick, drowns in a sea of alcohol amid quotations from King Lear. Lily looks for final contact with a man while the sisters pursue shifting, and mostly unsatisfactory, relationships with a gentle chess fanatic, an actor staying with the family while shooting a film about W.B. Yeats and a militant Communist whose wild activities are only reported.
It’s not always easy to reconcile Lily’s bursts of energy with the fact that she’s fading away, but Lynne Verrall mines the comedy of her frankness and obstinacy as well as the pathos of her sense of loss. Clive Kneller brings a fine cynical fury to Patrick while never losing touch with the humanity beneath it all. Bettine Mackenzie, the sensible (initially) librarian, Alice Beaumont, flinging herself at the film actor, and Evie Guttridge, going from sweetness to obscenity-filled rage as the youngest, are a well-balanced trio of sisters. Gary the chess fanatic and John the actor get likeable, convincingly understated performances from Josh Meredith and Gabriel Winter.
Runs until 25 March 2017 | Image: Contributed