Southwark Playhouse, London (***)
You win some, you lose some. Sometimes `forgotten gems’ are cast aside for good reason. Fashion, sensibilities, history – always changing. N C Hunter was once a darling of the West End in the 1950s, along with Rattigan and Coward. Then along came the era of the baldly and badly named working-class ` kitchen-sink’ dramas and such quiet, middle class fare completely lost its hold. Or attraction.
More than sixty years on, Rattigan and Coward are back on the scene. But N C Hunter has been forgotten, until now. Will it herald the start of a Hunter revival? I rather think not.
The last time A Day By The Sea was seen in the West End in 1953, it boasted the aristocracy of British theatre – John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike, Irene Worth, Lewis Casson.
Trish Thorn’s revival for her usually estimable Two’s Company has assembled a not bad looking crowd, headed by Susan Tracy and The Crown’s John Sackville as the etiolated FO First Secretary, Julian Anson – the part played by Gielgud.
Hunter was dubbed the `English Chekhov’ for good reason. A Day By The Sea reeks of Cherry Orchard echoes with its sad lives, frustrated loves, and meditation on past mistakes and troubled futures. And despite Thorn and her designer, Alex Marker setting it inside triple picture frames as if, in punctuation marks – `this is a period piece, it’s in the past’ – initially there’s no disguising its fusty, old-fashioned starchiness.
A play about our old friend, English (and Scottish) emotional inhibition and repression, it is too a precursor to so many plays in the ‘80s and ‘90s charting the male menopause or `mid life crisis’ as it used to be called.
Julian Anson, home to Dorset to Tracy’s fussing but kindly lady of the hearth, Laura, has given his life and soul to his work. Thin-lipped, thin-bloodied, his homecoming is due to become, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, a lesson in love.
It’s all rather too sign-posted. Alix Dunmore’s `scarlet woman’, Frances – a childhood friend who once doted on Julian but never told her love – is also staying after a disastrous first marriage to an older man and even worse, horrors, a divorcée from a wholly unsuitable younger man (shades of Rattigan’s Hester in The Deep Blue Sea).
Then there’s David Acton’s disillusioned, drunken doctor, tending to blurt out home truths, Mattie the Scottish `governess’ to Frances’s two children (when was the last time an English family had a `governess’, the Windsors apart?!) naturally in love with the doctor.
David Whitworth’s cantankerous, David Anson, Laura’s brother-in-law, meanwhile sits dozing, occasionally waking to offer memories of a colonial past and cantankerous apercus about the uselessness of ageing and dying. And finally, bringing up the rear, an eccentric family lawyer worrying about the cost of keeping the old house and estate going.
So far so déjà vu. But here’s a thing. In amongst the predictability, there are moments of insight that do resonate and chime with today – a line from Laura about politics being `thrust down our throats morning, noon and night’, and the doctor’s outburst about politicians as `meddlers’.
Post WWII, Laura, living in an Age of Anxiety, longs for an Age of Tranquillity. The doctor, venomously, muses on nationhood – `what’s a nation – a pack, a tribe…we inhabit a jungle’.
All too soon, Julian gets his comeuppance – demotion because of his `unpopularity’ apparently in his present posting in the Paris embassy – jolting him, as happens in life, into change and a deeper appreciation of other realities of life, such as landscaping and gardening!
We wait for his scene of reconciliation and happy-ever-afters with Frances. It comes but with a twist. Enough only to say that, after all, Hunter sounds an optimistic note for his (perhaps) alter ego, Julian Anson.
`Middle-class’ musings then from another anxious period in post-war British/English history – not the best you’ll ever see and after all, a strange one for Thorns to have revived whose eye for rediscovering discarded voices has been pretty faultless.
Perhaps she and her producer felt there was enough there to strike a chord with now. But the style – for all the liveliness of Tracy as Laura, Whitworth, Acton, Sackville and Stephanie Wilson who brings a wistful desperation to `Mattie’ – remains almost out of reach.
A successful salvage job? The jury’s out, I’d say.
Too dessicated and prim probably for our rabid tastes today.
One only for the truly committed.
A Day By The Sea
By N C Hunter
Miles Mathieson, governess: Stephanie Willson
Elinor Eddison, daughter of Frances: Tatum Smsith-Sperling/Beatrix Taylor
Toby Eddison, son of Frances: Jack Swift or George Taylor
Doctor Farley: David Acton
David Anson, brother-in-law to Laura: David Whitworth
Laura Anson: Susan Tracy
Frances Farrar, divorcee: Alix Dunmore
William Gregson, solicitor: David Gooderson
Julian Anson, Laura’s son, in the FO: John Sackville
Humphrey Caldwell, FO official: Hugh Sachs
Director: Tricia Thorns
Set Designer: Alex Marker
Costume Designer: Emily Stuart
Lighting Designer: Neill Brinkworth
Sound Designer: Candice Weaver
Casting Director: Ellie Collyer-Bristow
Composer: Sheila Atim
Producer: Graham Cowley
Presented by Two’s Company, Karl Sydow in association with Master Media
First perf of this production of A Day by the Sea at Southwark Playhouse, Oct 4, 2017. Runs to Oct 28, 2017.
Review published on this site, Oct 8, 2017