Though it has a love triangle storyline in common, this is not Mary Shelley’s Trial of Love, but an ambitious fusion of genres and styles all its own, vaulting across time and space between Chinese opera and Western horror, physical theatre and black comedy.
It starts with a nicely turned sitcom premise. A wealthy Chinese bachelor studying in London, Archie (Sam Goh), calls in Annie (Rhyanna Alexander-Davis), a specialist in exorcising oriental spirits, via a very plausible app called Ghostbusters. After the initial confusion caused by Annie’s black South Londoner identity, Annie discovers that Archie’s girlfriend, Hannah (Seisha Butler), is possessed by the spirit of Ann (Ning Lu), the lover Archie left behind in China. In a sudden change of mood, Ann now takes over the stage to sing her sad story, in flowing costume and with precise dance steps in the Chinese opera tradition. Then the genre moves on to ‘scary movie’, as Ann’s ghost variously inhabits, fights and controls the other characters.
As a concept, it’s alluring in its originality. Despite modern setting and dialogue the performance retains the formal quality it inherits from its roots, with percussion marking the beats, stylised poses and exaggerated facial expressions to portray the emotional narrative. There is a suspicion that the production is forged into its unusual shape to suit the personnel available, yet as an apparently random collision of ideas it wards off the ever-present danger of baffling the audience. Ning Lu’s classical training is apparent as Ann, but Director Sally Jiayun Xu must take much credit for blending the ensemble so fluidly, as well as for the production’s (otherwise uncredited) art direction, careful use of colours and costume.
The script is a kind of love triangle itself, between the Director’s modernisation of an ancient tale and its westernisation by Dwain Brown but, however it was devised, its tight dialogue and meticulous execution allow it to slalom through funny, then beautiful, magical then scary without much difficulty, very much helped by slick lighting changes (Melanie Percy) and sound (Andrea Lungay). The mesmerising spectacle ends with a neat coda as tea is ritually taken by the remaining characters.
Though elegantly done, there are a few holes and oddities, perhaps lost in translation. Archie is supposed to be wealthy, yet later appears to be financially supported by his hardworking, abandoned first lover, who is also busy haunting his girlfriend. The theme of stereotyping and interrelating cultures that is set up so intriguingly at the start is undermined by being left unexplored. The unhelpful naming of the characters appears to be an unmotivated whim. However, the outcome is fresh, witty, visually enchanting and not without depth, while the universal themes of love, greed and betrayal keep it one piece.
“A deliciously haunting production from a plucky and dedicated theatre”
It’s late summer, a stifling atmosphere pervades the Kentish home of the Ardsley family, all of whom are in some way affected by the ending of the Great War. Whether by injury, hasty marriage, stagnating economy or the stultifying culture of abandonment dressed up as just getting on with things, each face a future of anxiety and diminishment. Only the youngest, Lois, seems to have escape routes, though none without penalty.
Somerset Maugham’s angry and sullenly anti-war work, premiered in 1932, was not deemed a huge success, despite or because of its scathing lines satirising attitudes to returning combatants. Over time the drama’s unblinking appraisal of human motivations led to more literary critiques and a smattering of recent revivals. Opening the Jermyn Street Theatre’s Memories Season, at a time of when England is again wracked by change and the younger generation must again face shrinking horizons to a chorus of entreaties to be optimistic, it fits like a well-made suit, though modern parallels are thankfully not forced.
The set by Louie Whitemore establishes a world of tennis and tea on the lawn very much as the writer intended and, as the action ensues, Emily Stuart’s beautifully tailored period costumes underline the sense of a moment in time, perfectly preserved. Diane Fletcher as the weary matriarch, Charlotte, portrays with precision the slow acceptance that nothing seems to matter anymore; every glance and micro-expression accumulating dejection.
The four Ardsley children all have different reasons to feel frustrated in their pursuit of a meaningful life and after the interval the masterful writing chillingly depicts how human nature turns venal as a consequence of being starved of options. All performances do their bit for the cause. Richard Keightley is particularly unerring in his performance of the war-blinded, still fragile but chipper Sydney Ardsley, but no character is overplayed, which only makes their suffocating predicament more so. Even the lower class, drunken oaf, Howard played by Burt Caesar restrains his boorishness, slurping beer in noisy measured gulps, advancing on young Lois in the same methodical way, using the sinister wartime logic of enjoying life while you can, alarmingly transposed to peace time. Sally Cheng as Lois, Rachel Pickup as Eva Ardsley and Jotham Annan as Collie Stratton follow suit, politely unravelling their tragic prospects at the same rate with varying degrees of brittle cheerfulness.
Direction by the theatre’s Artistic Director Tom Littler is subtle, possibly unadventurous, but in doing so, he allows the mounting frustration to moulder into angst and finally to a very English version of hysteria, all at an insidiously clockwork pace, marked by distant church clock chimes, refilled whisky and sodas, tea and the dropping apples and rose heads. We feel we are watching England decline before us in real time. A deliciously haunting production from a plucky and dedicated theatre celebrating its 25th anniversary.