Writers: Edward Percy and Reginald Denham
Director: Ian Dickens
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Set in the early 1800s, Ladies in Retirement is billed as a Victorian melodrama. Written in 1941, it was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and adapted in 1944 into a highly successful film. Sadly, however, it does not really stand the test of time. For modern audiences, it is slow moving with some decidedly odd stock characters.
Leonora Fisk (Shirley Anne Field) is a former actress. Now retired, she owns Estuary House, a large house in the middle of nowhere. She is accompanied by her young maid, Lucy (Melissa Clements) and her housekeeper/companion, Ellen Creed (Erin Geraghty), a genteel lady who has fallen on hard times. Ellen has two elderly sisters – Emily (Karen Ford) and Louisa (Sylvia Carson) – who are difficult to describe. In the play, they are described as “potty”; in fact, they are like children who have never grown up. Indeed, Ellen sees them as her children and has promised their father that she will care for them. To this end, she has convinced Miss Fisk to allow her sisters to stay at Estuary House, hoping the arrangement can become permanent. However, their silliness soon gets on Miss Fisk’s nerves and she orders them out – an error of judgement as the first act closes with Ellen taking desperate measures to ensure they can remain, strangling Miss Fisk having sent her sisters out of the house and Lucy on holiday. But can she live with her guilt? And can she maintain the pretence that Miss Fisk is travelling?
Enter the sisters’ ne’er-do-well nephew, Albert (Christopher Hogben). He briefly met Miss Fisk when he needed cash for a debt and she took pity on him. He has now stolen from the bank that employed him and needs to lay low. He and Lucy become infatuated and they gradually piece together the chain of events. Can they turn things to their advantage?
Without a doubt, the finest performances of the night come from the youngest cast members, Hogben and Clements. She moves believably from giggly, slightly coquettish girl to devoted companion. She is always a joy to watch on stage. Hogben similarly is a larger-than-life character. He entrances the “potty” sisters while also having an icy core as he plots how to take advantage of the situation. Carson’s childlike Louisa is well realised. She does bring to mind a seven-year-old in her actions and speech. Karen Ford’s Emily is more adolescent, pouting and sulking. However, neither of these characters is really convincing, a fault more of the writing that simply seems to try to use them as light relief without imagining how they came to be as they are. Most of the weight of the story falls on the shoulders of Geraghty as the well-meaning, generous sister with a strong sense of duty. She underplays the part, presumably to generate a sense of impending doom, but which turns out simply to be rather flat. Field’s Fisk is similarly disappointingly two dimensional. The suspension of disbelief is stretched infinitesimally thin by her reaction when she is strangled.
This production has been touring several months but this evening’s performance had the feel of a preview. There were several instances of fluffed lines and characters talking over each other, at times feeling almost amateurish, an impression reinforced by the number of typographical errors in the programme.
Ian Dickens’ direction tends towards the obvious; the deeper feelings of the characters are not brought out, hence their lack of depth. The whole is also rather long and wordy, becoming heavy-going at times; it could be improved for modern audiences through some judicious cuts. The detailed set, designed by Ian Marston, does evoke the period effectively.
Overall, a somewhat disappointing night.
Runs until 7th June