Writer: Alan Bennett
Adaptor: Adrian Scarborough
Director: Adam Penford
It’s over 25 years since Alan Bennett’s novella The Clothes They Stood Up In first arrived, and now it appears for the first time on stage, kicking off Nottingham Playhouse’s autumn season. Bennett’s darkly comic tale tells of Mr & Mrs Ransome, an unremarkable middle-class couple who return from a night at the opera to find that their flat has been stripped bare. Furniture, fitted carpets, light fittings – and a hot oven containing a sticky chicken casserole. They’ve even – to Mr Ransome’s dismay when he discovers too late – taken the toilet roll. In the process of trying to find ways of replacing their possessions, they find out things about themselves – should they rebuild everything as it was before, or start again?
This is Adrian Scarborough’s first adapted play, and he has done a fine job of translating Bennett’s words for the stage, with the trademark dry observational humour shining through. Indeed, it is a very funny piece, but twinged with more than a touch of poignancy as the Ransome’s relationship is laid bare for them and the audience to see, with dreams and sorrow over opportunities missed.
There’s a lot to like about the piece. Robert Jones has created a detailed set which helps to keep things moving slickly despite the obvious challenges it creates for the stage crew in making it all work. The characters are exaggerated but instantly recognisable. Lighting by Aideen Malone works well to create the different locations and settings, and the play has a superb cast.
Writer Adrian Scarborough is better known for his acting skills, and here he appears as Mr Ransome. He gives us a lovely portrayal of the fussy, stuffy middle-class man, with far more interest in his work and in opera than he has in his wife. As we keep being reminded, as though it explains everything, “I am a solicitor!” You get a sense of a man who’s surrounded himself with expensive things and listens to opera because it is expected rather than genuine, and whose ambitions revolve around acquiring material possessions. It’s a well-judged and believable performance.
Alongside Scarborough is the wonderful Sophie Thompson as Mrs Ransome, with an interpretation that is equally comic, heartbreaking and hopeful. This is a woman whose dreams have been suppressed before she had time to live them, a butterfly still trapped inside its cocoon and not daring to long for the world outside it. She’s a woman whose behaviours and attitudes have been conditioned by her husband, until circumstances force her to revisit her past life and long for the future she might have had. Beautifully done.
The pair are supported by a hugely versatile and talented cast, each playing a number of – very different – characters. Charlie de Melo gives us a classic Asian shopkeeper Mr Anwar, alongside a slightly disbelieving and uninterested policeman. Ned Costello shows his character acting skills well with four roles – a young police constable fresh off the graduate trainee scheme with a knowledge of literature and police theory but little reality, an insurance assessor, a warehouseman with a taste for the finer things that he can’t afford, and a fitness-freak neighbour – all different, all well delivered.
Finally, and almost stealing the show, is Natasha Magigi with some performances that will stick in the mind for a long time. Her lady in the laundrette is very funny, and her stereotyped and over-the-top counsellor absolutely hits the money and creates many laugh-out-loud moments. To top it all, the all-too-brief interpretation of the receptionist on the telephone is a thing of wonder, the person we all know we’ve come across at some point who makes us want to tear our hair with frustration.
It’s a very funny, well-written and beautifully acted piece which has had Alan Bennett’s approval. An old book it may be, but it’s like seeing a new Bennett play. Highly recommended.
Runs Until 1 October 2022