Writer: William J. Locke (original short story)
Adapter: Shaun McKenna, based on the film written by Charles Dance
Reviewer: James Martin
Sitting by the river in the scenic garden of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre enjoying a glass of wine in the brilliant evening sunshine was a perfect precursor to an evening spent revelling in the pleasantries of 1930’s rural Cornwall in Shaun McKenna’s adaptation of Ladies in Lavender. The story follows two elderly sisters, played by Hayley Mills and Belinda Lang who are content living out their days in simplistic isolation until their world is dashed by a foreign castaway appearing on the rocks of the nearby beach within view of their house. In a transitional time in England, still recovering from the devastation of the First World War and on the brink of a second, a strange and alien influence on their timid and rustic existence has a profound affect.
As the ladies in lavender nurse this intriguing and fetching young gentleman back to health, with the aid of their housemaid and the local doctor (played by Carol Macready and Robert Duncan respectively), they begin to learn more about this man of mystique. Robert Rees plays a solid rôle as Andreas; the bedridden Polish musician that it transpires the ladies have saved. As his English improves, so do his charms and Ursula played by Mills begins on a tragic journey of love, despair, loneliness and eventually loss. Despite the compassion shown to him by the sisters, the play ends with Andreas fleeing to London in search of expanding his musical career after they hide from him an invitation to meet his professional hero.
At first glance this is an innocent story with the audience feeling empathy for the quaint and bashful Ursula, with the over-riding thought at the conclusion that it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. We find out that Andreas has become successful in following his dream, and Ursula can smile with her fond memories fuelling her now instead of unrealistic dreams. However, it is easy to forget the deceit and selfishness of the sisters that pushes the young man away. This failure to put his best interests first is a real juxtaposition with the fact they have saved his life, leaving the audience with a clever mixture of emotions towards the sisters. This may be a comment on the 1930’s elitist class persona or the most natural of conflicting characteristics that we all show on a daily basis.
Lang and Mills have a wonderful chemistry on stage, and Hayley Mills really does deserve special mention for her Blanche DuBois styled performance, carrying an elegant and faint delusion that inevitable ends with heartbreak. However, the supporting cast all provide excellent backing, and the viewer grows a particular warmth to Carol Macready’s character of Dorcas the housemaid who delivers a comic element throughout with great timing and precision.
Robin Lefevre and Liz Ascroft must also be commended for the visuals and structure of the play that center on an intricately built set showing both the inside and outside of the quaint cottage, with the beach and garden also incorporated. This allows for parallel narratives and swift scene changes that give the play a good tempo.
This adaptation will leave you touched and possibly even teary-eyed at points, however with its substance sitting so closely to the preceding 2004 film with the same name, featuring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, I cannot help think that a bolder rendition may have paid bigger dividends. Imagine with the central themes of love, trust, sexuality, age and compassion, how an adaptation based in contemporary England could have had an effect on this traditional story. This is not to say that I did not thoroughly enjoy the feast served up this evening by a sterling cast and clever stage production team, therefore I would happily recommend to others.
Runs until Saturday 12th May 2012