Writer: Rudyard Kipling
Adapter: Nobby Dimon
Director: Vivienne Garnett
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Despite the highly appreciative sell-out audience in the McCarthy at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, it would perhaps have brought out the true quality of North Country Theatre better to have seen The Wish House in a village hall. The Scarborough date came halfway through a remarkable tour of 40-plus one-nighters, stretching from Scotland to the West Midlands, but the vast majority in halls in rural Yorkshire.
North Country Theatre has been doing this for 20 years, with 31 touring productions to date, many of them literary adaptations, and its informal, self-contained production method is well suited to the drop-in, community-friendly style required. Vivienne Garnett’s production, though hardly static, operates in small space and the set is an ingenious miracle of compression. Within Jonny Buck’s solid and nicely detailed kitchen, outside scenes are cleverly created by covering the washerwoman’s clothes-frame with bed-sheets containing period-style illustrations by Simon Pell and Garnett herself.
One of North Country Theatre’s great assets is the writing and adapting skills of Artistic Director Nobby Dimon who typically brings an element of irreverence to his story-telling: the internationally popular tongue-in-cheek 39 Steps developed from Dimon and Simon Corble’s adaptation for North Country’s first tour.
The Wish House is “plundered” (Dimon’s word) from a Rudyard Kipling story in the collection Debits and Credits, much changed and with its grim supernatural elements now relieved with humour, high spirits and a sweetly sentimental love story. Grace Ashcroft, an oddly ebullient character for one who needs regular medical treatment and is convinced she is dying, tells the story of The Wish House where you can wish away another’s suffering by taking it on yourself. Side by side with this is Grace’s encouragement of her nurse and the vicar in the romance they are too shy and correct to pursue for themselves.
The period is not clear at first, but Grace’s choice of songs suggests the 1930s. However, the feeling is often of a slightly more distant past, partly because of Grace’s old-fashioned ways and partly because many of the events take place 18 years earlier – before the 1914-18 war. Dimon juxtaposes the two periods neatly, just as neatly as he fits in comedy sketch impressions of the meeting of nurse and vicar (timid and bold versions) with a mysterious tale that ends on a suitably ambiguous note, though after a rather too drawn-out final sequence of scenes.
As Grace Ashcroft, Ashley Christmas carries the performance in fine style, narrating many of the events direct to the audience or to Nurse Fettley and projecting such joy in life that even her semi-crippled hobbling seems filled with energy. She is perhaps less successful at conveying the darkness in the character, but this is a dynamic central performance. Vivienne Garnett is intelligently sympathetic as the Nurse and plays a couple of small parts successfully. Mark Cronfield is rather stiff as the Vicar, deliberately pointing up his doubts and hesitations, and contrasts that with the initially happy-go-lucky Harry Mockler, once Grace’s lover.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed