Norwich theatres have their ups and downs, but Sewell Barn Theatre have given us a consistent run of good plays well performed for some time now. Their latest offering is Di and Viv and Rose by Amelia Bullmore who is a well regarded theatre and tv actress as well as playwright. This production is directed by Emma Kirkham.
The drama follows three women over a period of 27 years, from their first encounter as university students to their very diverse lives in later middle age. They are defined in the drama by their different study paths and their different approaches to sexuality, but the bonds they form in college years stay strong throughout their lives.
Good writing is the key to credibility for me in any stage work, and Amelia Bullmore has written a play that develops three very strong and distinctive female characters. The dialogue is realistic and appropriate throughout the play, my only slight concern is that the need for drama has given us a possible surfeit of trauma. The price of creating characters that we can relate well to is that we have to bear the pain that they do. Bullmore has appeared in many soap opera and tv dramas over the years where the body count is inevitably much higher than we experience in real life. It shows.
Rose (Tara Woodley) is an art student who loves cooking and looking after people and has a considerable appetite for sexual encounters with student boys. Eight in a fortnight is a given instance. Through the convenient provision of her stepfather she arranges the purchase of a three bedroom house to share with university friends Di (Charlotte Carter) and Viv (Verity Roat). Most of the first Act is set in the house, 42 Mossbank Road, where the three get to know each other in depth. Di is studying business and is a lesbian; Viv is primly dressed and studying sociology but keeps her sexuality to herself. While Di is very tentatively trying to get together with like minded girls Rose is having a great time, dismissing her housemate’s concerns with remarks like ‘only boys get AIDS’. This was not an unusual claim in the early 80s.
Viv meanwhile remains devoted to her studies and ambition. Always elegant and demure she adroitly fends off any queries from her housemates about her own proclivities. These diverse characters set up a tension of impending disaster, but when it comes it is unexpected and shocking and changes the dynamics of their friendship irrevocably.
The second Act sees the three in their post university lives, over the next fifteen years. While their lives have taken them continents apart their friendship remains a powerful part of each of the three lives. Further traumas take us on a darker path, stretching the friendship to its limits.
The three performers are all on stage for almost all of this long and demanding work, and they each play their part magnificently well. It is their performances that make this an enjoyable theatrical event throughout. Did I say long? At about three hours from start to go-home time it is a long evening, and a few times I wondered if the musical interludes between scenes might be abbreviated just a little, although the script is quite technically demanding as costume changes need to reflect the often quite big time gaps between scenes. The music is also well chosen and takes us quickly back to our own lives at the time, if we were alive then. As ever at Sewell Barn a lot of thought has gone into costume and set to quickly put us in the right place and time.
The three leads give faultless performances that develop strong and believable characters, albeit at the risk of some rather predictable stereotyping as the script demands. Perhaps it is no surprise given the writer’s background that several scenes end with a cliffhanger moment to take us to the next episode, while the final ending seems a little contrived to me, a scratchy little epilogue. However overall this cast and crew give us an enjoyable performance that is bound to stir nostalgia for those of us who recall the Eighties while giving us a lot to ponder on about the nature of lifelong friendships. It does leave some unanswered questions. The sexuality of Rose and Di is laid out explicitly throughout, yet we never get any real clue about Viv’s passions. Sewell Barn Theatre are an enthusiast company that put a great deal of effort into giving us high production values and you would need a heart of stone not to engage with the three lively characters who fill this atmospheric theatre with this show. Another winner from Sewell Barn greatly enjoyed by tonight’s audience.
Di and Viv and Rose by Amelia Bullmore directed by Emma Kirkham is at Sewell Barn Theatre on 19-22 April 2023 at 7.30pm, with a matinèe on 22 April at 2.30pm. Contact www.sewellbarn.org for further information.
© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 14th April 2023