Somewhat to my surprise, I find that this play originated as recently as 1975, yet it has the nostalgic feel of an older production. When I further realised that the playwright, Ben Travers, was 89 at the time of the original staging (which featured Helen Mirren as Ella) and that his major output before that was a series of farces in the ’20s and the ’30s, I had an inkling of why it seemed to belong to an earlier era. However, the 1970s saw such relaxation of theatre censorship that Travers and others could finally present plays about sex and society’s attitude to it, especially the liberation of women and the idea of sex being an acceptable pleasure rather than ‘Lie back and think of England’. Thus some aspects of this play will be familiar, albeit at a different level, when comediennes such as Jo Brand and Sarah Millican have delighted in provoking embarrassed laughter in their open discussion of orgasm and women’s experience of sex – and the relationship between Victor and Alma is certainly from the same prototypes as the late Victoria Wood’s ‘Ballad of Barry and Freda’.
In this production Angela Whyatt is convincing and entertaining in the lead as the bossy, repressed, middle-aged widow, Alma. The transformation into the confident later role as the woman who goes abroad and initiates a relationship with an Italian gigolo is perhaps not as convincing, but that is largely to do with the script: I don’t think it is psychologically plausible in such a short time-frame – give me Shirley Valentine anytime!
Alan Dester is suitably pathetic as Victor, the original object of her desire for a platonic companionship, though I did find his posture and arm gestures a bit wooden. I had rather expected him to smarten up after marrying the wealthy widow, but he continued to wear the same ill-fitting suit until he finally changed into a striped blazer which he seemed to have donned in a hurry, with only one button fastened and the collar turned up at the back.
Martyn Brown, as Victor’s ne’er-do-well son, Aubrey, is perhaps a bit too nice for the reprehension felt by Victor and Alma. There are good cameos by Kerry Newton as Mrs Holley, Tony Hessey as Felix (and a cab driver), Fiona Richards as Lolly and particularly Andrew Whyatt as Fred Castle. The (young?) lady who came on in French maid’s outfit between scenes and moved things about and generally performed the limited scene changes does not get a mention in the credits, but her curtsey to the audience after every such scene change received appreciative applause and laughter from the audience.
As an entertainment it is not for the politically correct – it has a two-dimensional view of women and sex and a shocking (these days) racialist word used right towards the end – but it is a product of its time in the same era as The Benny Hill Show and some of the later Carry On films. I enjoyed it and the theatre was almost full of others who apparently felt the same.
Future performances: 8-10 June at 7.45.