Minerva, Chichester Theatre, East Sussex ****
It opens at a Quaker meeting, a circle of people, being silent, waiting for the spirit to move in them to speak. At the end, there is a catalystic moment when one of their number does indeed speak. What passes in between is a fascinating, hugely moving exploration by Charlotte Jones (Humble Boy, book for the Andrew Lloyd Webber music of Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White) of silence, communication and women finding their voice.
Jones, convent education actually attended Quaker meetings in Lewes, East Sussex, where she sets her drama. She found the silence and their credos of non-violence, equality and inherent radicalism inspirational.
This then, in a sense, is a `local’ play for Chichester. Its themes and Natalie Abrahami’s beautiful and economic but hugely effective production however speak of a universality, not least in the fact Jones includes a deaf character – a mother, deaf since a childhood illness – as a revelatory dramatic instrument that speaks far wider.
When Alice (Jean St Clair) finally speaks, its effect is profound – dynamic, overwhelming and the culmination of Alice and her daughter, Rachel (Lydia Leonard)’s battle to be `seen’ and acknowledged.
In Abrahami’s production, there is a strong sense of the enclosed, hermetic quality of the Quakers – like Alice, outsiders, with designer Vicki Mortimer’s seated circle overhung with a canopy which rises to reveal the play’s other backdrop – piles of white rock for Rachel’s gravestone-maker husband, appropriately named Adam, a son of toil!
Although given a Napoleonic period setting, Jones’ writing seems to catch the very essence of our own troubled times with its references to war, social insecurities and suspicion of the `other’ and difference.
But it is also a deeply personal play, about individual drives, needs, passions and attempts to find a good way to live.
The joy of The Meeting resides also in the way Jones punctuates her narrative, embracing issues such as childlessness, social radicalism and the role of women in society. Rachel, like Lorca’s Yerma, is tormented by her childlessness – three infant deaths in her case.
Loved by her stoic, hard-working husband, Adam (Gerald Kyd), Rachel burns with words and the urge to speak, not always appropriately in a community where men still hold sway in the meetings.
Jones over-eggs her brew just a little with the introduction of tensions arising from the introduction of a further outsider, a young Army deserter, who perhaps too predictably causes mayhem amongst the women, bringing to light emotional and sexual tensions that no amount of concentration on kindness can smooth away.
But his intrusion proves a useful dramatic catalyst. Long held resentments explode into the community with life-changing results for both Rachel and Adam. And ultimately Alice.
Jones pulls out a wonderful moment of heart-stopping beauty with a dove-tailing of hands between the lovers reminiscent of Brian Friel’s Translations and its moment of communication between two young people despite speaking different languages.
And she also rings surprises in her final denouements, not just concerning Alice but also Rachel, who, like her mother finds her true voice at the expense, like Ibsen’s Dora in The Doll’s House, of hearth and home.
The Meeting, then is ultimately a play of hope, and of forgiveness as Adam starts to build a new Meeting House with the young deserter, Nathaniel (Laurie Davidson).
A small, quiet important play for our times, its led by a luminous, fiercely honest performance by Lydia Leonard as Rachel and Gerald Kyd as the puzzled ultimately broad-shouldered Adam.
Newcomer Laurie Davidson turns in a fine portrait of young, frightened opportunism as Nathaniel. But it is Jean St Clair whose silent presence imbues the production with its power and integrity. Ever watchful, never taking her eyes from the other actors, her moments of silent signing with Leonard’s Rachel reflect the intimacy of silence as a testimony to the eloquence of the human spirit and the goals to which Quakers aspire.
A new play by Charlotte Jones
Tabitha Rickman: Leona Allen
Biddy Rickman: Olivia Darnley
Nathaniel Burns: Laurie Davidson
Elder James Rickman: Jim Findley
Adam Young: Gerald Kyd
Rachel Young: Lydia Leonard
Alice Thirley: Jean St Clair
Ann Harding: Rio Barrett
Samuel Grover: Barry Jarvis
Thomas Marten: Daniel Kelly
Joseph Ridge: Peter Waters
Rebecca Grover: Suzie Wilde
Director: Natalie Abrahami
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Designers: Paule Constable and Marc Williams
Music and Sound: Ben and Max Ringham
Choreographer: Mark Smith
Movement Director: Gary Sefton
Casting Director: Charlotte Sutton
Voice and Dialect Coach: Emma Woodvine
BSL Consultant: Deepa Shastri
Costume Supervisor: Helen Johnson
Assistant Director: Emily Ling Williams
Fight Director: Bret Yount
BSL Interpreters: Becky Barry, Sarah Granger, Catrin Thomas
BSL Tutor: Tara Asher
World premiere of The Meeting at the Minerva, Chichester, July 13, 2018.
Runs to Aug 11, 2018
Review published on this site, July 24, 2018