Writer: Bill Naughton
Director: Lotte Wakeham
Rafe Crompton (Les Dennis) takes a strict disciplinary approach to running his household. His four children, all of working age, are expected to contribute towards the household costs and Rafe is able to spot any attempt at short-changing with a single glance. Daisy Crompton (Mina Anwar) lives in a state of constant anxiety her husband may notice she is unable to balance the housekeeping books. But spring and port wine have a heady effect and besides, in 1966, attitudes are changing, and children no longer share the views and values of their parents. When an apparently trivial incident drives Rafe into an act of domestic tyranny the effects are so unexpected as to possibly push the family apart.
Although the features of Spring and Port Wine, generational conflict and families coping with austerity and adversity, remain relevant, the play is very much of its time in terms of structure. Written at a time when plays were expected to be in a three-act format it is longer than is strictly necessary. Despite being set in the relatively recent past the appeal of the play may be limited to older audiences able to recall family finances being stored in a cash box not an online bank account.
Spring and Port Wine is one of the more famous kitchen-sink dramas and its influence is apparent in contemporary plays such as East is East. Yet, director Lotte Wakeham takes a light, rather than dramatic, approach. Isabel Ford seems to be channelling the late Les Dawson in her interpretation of a conniving cadging neighbour. Moments written as high drama – Daisy Crompton trying to conceal from her husband she has pawned a valuable item- work well as comedy with laughter bringing a welcome relief from tension. The impact of this comedic approach is best appreciated in the second act where Rafe’s interrogation of his family, to determine which of them has defied him, begins as farce and gradually darkens into grim melodrama as events get out of hand and move towards tragedy.
Spring and Port Wine is set at a time of great social change, and, to an extent, Rafe challenges the urge to move forward without regard for what has gone before, his character and opinions being shaped by harsh experience. Director Wakeham widens the scope of the play to be of relevance to a contemporary audience. The interest taken by Wilfred Crompton (Gabriel Clark) in his sister’s boyfriend may be an indication of his repressed sexuality.
The Octagon is theatre in the round, but this does not prevent set designer Katie Scott suggesting a warm, crowded household with stacks of family photographs stretching up to the rafters. The disintegration of the family is heartbreakingly shown with the dining table shrinking in size as fewer family members remain.
Les Dennis and Mina Anwar are a fine double act. The script details the poverty-stricken background which motivates Rafe Crompton and has resulted in his resolute character and reluctance to change his opinions. Yet, Les Dennis is a surprisingly self-aware Rafe and, towards the conclusion, even affable. He gives the impression Rafe has been half-expecting his family to call his bluff for some time and is surprised not to have been challenged before. Mina Anwar shows the full psychological impact of living with such a demanding character but makes clear Daisy’s innate dignity, taking offence when being told neighbours regard her as downtrodden. Most importantly the pair are a convincing husband and wife, working in partnership to bring their family back together.
The current production is the sixth time Octagon Theatre, Bolton, has staged Spring and Port Wine and demonstrates the lasting appeal of the play.
Runs until 4 March 2023.