The delightfully intimate Jack Studio Theatre reopens in front of a socially-distanced audience with this charming two-hander by Stewart Pringle. Last seen live-streamed from the Maltings Theatre, the production is directed by Matthew Parker. Jilly Bond reprises her role as Denise, the sinewy Zumba teacher, who meets weekly with retired widower Harry played by Timothy Harker.
Our scene is one end of the Billingham Temperance Hall with its stark entrance, a stack of black plastic chairs and the ubiquitous trestle table at centre stage. There is just enough clutter in and on top of a cupboard to represent the paraphernalia that such community spaces attract and an appropriate selection of posters (almost certainly out-of-date) on the community noticeboard.
Numerous mini-scenes flash by, one week apart. Harry’s committee meeting finishes before Denise’s Zumba class starts and in the few minutes’ hiatus, beginning with a misunderstanding, we see their friendship – if not a relationship – develop and blossom. There is small talk and the sharing of sandwiches, and little by little personal information leaks out. But can we believe these short meetings can develop into romance? Denise talks of the steamy scenes she is reading but she does not follow such talk into action. Harry is too content with his mundane unchanging routine to risk the turmoil of change.
Harker excels as the fastidious Harry, with his shuffling of papers and bumbling manner, in a tweed jacket and sleeveless woollen sweater, and a flat cap to remind us of his Yorkshire-ness. When appointed Chairman to his board he buys his own gavel on eBay but sheepishly admits he has never had to use it in a meeting. But he mimes with it when no-one is looking.
Denise is brash, and confident enough to run both an exercise class and a book club, but she is unable to confront a man who makes comments on her eating a banana in the library.
The well-rehearsed movement between the couple in the confined space is slick and easy. Entrances and exits through the one small door are timed perfectly. Only when the couple attempt to sit on the table does the fluency stutter; Harker (or Harry) can’t hide his doubts that the trestle is sufficiently stable.
There is no full blackout between scenes so that we can see the reset for the next meeting. Tedium from the repetitive actions of stacking and restacking the chairs and the repositioning of the trestle table is narrowly avoided. Only the continuous opening and closing of Harry’s briefcase becomes a bugbear. And it jars when the trestle is incongruously left standing in some later scenes as the premise of the play is surely that the table has to be moved for Denise’s Zumba class.
Both Bond and Harker play the comedy gently and convincingly. It is light and comfortable viewing – the potential source for a Sunday evening TV sit-com – but the personal stories lack depth and, whilst we learn that even older people can get muddled in their efforts to forge relationships, the journey our couple make is not long enough.
“Adam Nichols’ direction delivers a well-oiled and well-crafted two hours, though the chaos is overplayed”
Having been at the forefront of the campaign to allow live open-air performance to re-start in the summer months – presenting a two-week long theatre festival – The Maltings is now back with an indoor, COVID-safe Autumn programme. The safety measures are well-thought out and implemented, from bubble-seating to an in-seat drinks service and a one-way system to the loos at the interval, and the delight of this socially-distanced capacity crowd at being back in the building was palpable. This was an audience which had really missed live performance, was thrilled to be back, and was determined to have a good time. The show garnered laughter and spontaneous applause aplenty throughout.
Patrick Barlow’s 2005 script follows on from the original four-person version by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon ten years before, which is itself an adaptation of the 1935 screen version of John Buchan’s original 1915 spy novel. It’s a rollicking ride of a show, with three actors playing an enormous cast of characters – cops, villains, hoteliers, milkmen, paper boys – as well as the main roles, and one actor playing Richard Hannay, at the centre of all the mayhem. There are costume changes galore, and much ingenious manipulation of on-stage furniture and props to create cars, trains, aeroplanes, and even the Forth Bridge at one point, which is all tightly choreographed and managed with great skill by the performers. Simon Nicholas and Flora Squires, in particular, form a hugely skilful and energetic comedy team as the clowns who, between them, take on the majority of the minor roles and transformations.
James Douglas is terrific as the hapless Hannay, bumbling his way through this extraordinary tale, and Hannah Baker deals ably with the three larger female roles. Simon Nicholas’ chaotic-seeming set, resembling the prop store in a theatre, is a perfect and precise construction, with everything artfully poised to enable the smooth-running of this extremely business-heavy show. Adam Nichols’ direction delivers a well-oiled and well-crafted two hours, though the chaos is overplayed, and the breaking of the fourth wall wears a bit thin. The ‘things not quite working as they should’ gag is definitely overused, and the continual ironic ‘broad strokes’ approach to minor characterisation becomes wearisome and means that, despite a lot of manic stage action, the pace does drag at times.
One of the pleasures of the 1935 film adaptation is the contrast in tone between the extreme seriousness of the task at hand and the joyful silliness of our hero handcuffed to the protesting Pamela. By realising the entire story as a comedy caper, and not honouring the thriller element of the plot, much of the humour’s pleasure is lost. Just as the enlivening bubbles in a good Scotch and soda soften and prolong the complex flavours of a single malt, so the laughs help us to digest Buchan’s rather serious message about the perils of seductive fascism. All soda and no Scotch is simply criminal, as Richard Hannay would most certainly agree.