Colder Than Here
Milton Court Studio, 13th February 2018
Another visit to see the final year actors at the Guildhall School take on a fascinating contemporary play. Another excellent production laced with outstanding performances. Even better than the production of Edward Bond’s Saved, (Saved at Guildhall School Milton Court Studio review ****) which I had not expected.
Now playwright Laura Wade is best known to you culture vultures from her play Posh, later remade as the film The Riot Club directed by Lone Scherfig (who is an excellent director BTW). It is a not so thinly veiled parody of the infamous Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, the proving ground for rich, obnoxious toffs and, I fear people, many of your leaders. If you are only a casual theatre-goer put this on your list. I guarantee you will love it. That is why it has been so frequently revived since its Royal Court premiere in 2010.
I can’t vouch for any of Laura Wade’s other work with the exception of her adaptation of Sarah Water’s novel Tipping the Velvet, directed by the wonderful Lyndsey Turner at the Lyric Hammersmith. Now there is no easy way to say this but I did initially fell a little self-conscious when I rocked up to this as a solo, 50 year old fat bloke amongst such a glamorous audience. Once I had relaxed into it however I enjoyed the entertainment. The music-hall setting worked well, the musical arrangements were jolly, there was plenty of eye-catching capers, the cast attacked the text with gusto, especially Sally Messham, (seen recently in the Orange Tree/Paines Plough/Theatre Clywd triple bill), and Laura Davies, (the best actor in Rose Kingston’s recent revival of Rules for Living – Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***). It was, as others observed, maybe a bit tame and less gritty in tone than Sarah Water’s book but a pleasure nonetheless.
So this then was an opportunity to see one of Ms Wade’s highly regarded earlier plays. And what a fine play it is. Down-to-earth, (no pun intended), Myra has terminal bone cancer. She determines to have a green burial and ropes husband Alec, and two daughters, headstrong Jenna and more measured Harriet, into her plan. As Myra says “you’s got to keep busy if you’re off work with dying”. That’s about it. Yet Laura Wade’s writing is so exact and light of touch that we learn a lot about, and laugh a lot with, this normal family having to deal with death. Frankie Bradshaw’s set is a commonplace front room flanked by copper piping which extends to the video design of K. Yolland. This serves as the backdrop for the six scenes where the family, in various combinations, visits potential natural burial sites.
Myra’s matter-of-fact approach to the end of her life, Alec’s refusal to talk directly about it and his frustrations with bureaucracy, Jenna’s drama-queen, boyfriend troubles and the eventual breakdown of Harriet’s composure, all reveal that their displacement and coping mechanisms are fragile. We can feel the sorrow beneath the comedy but the play never feels sentimental or mawkish.
So plenty for the four actors to get their teeth into. I was particularly impressed by the two sisters played by Phoebe Marshall and Mhairi Gayer. To be fair they probably have the best of the play in the scenes where they visit potential burial sites together. Phoebe Marshall cleverly shows us that Jenna’s truculent exterior is thin disguise for a sweeter interior. Mhairi Gayer, who was outstanding as Anya in the Guildhall’s Cherry Orchard last year (The Cherry Orchard at Milton Court Theatre review ***), was utterly convincing as Harriet. I expect an illustrious career lies ahead of her. Tallulah Bond and Jonny Lavelle had a bit more work to do playing characters twice their age but both delivered admirably. Director Lisa Blair precisely captured the tone of the play.
Now you can see plenty of contemporary and new plays in our great subsidised or, when the reputations justify it, commercial theatres where the whole turns out to be less than the sum of the parts. Ambition trumps execution. So it really was a pleasure to see this very fine, gentle play, which still has much to say, performed with such care and attention. Even down to, with the odd wobble, the West Midlands accents. And all for a tenner. Brilliant.