Still Life – photos © Barry Parsons/East Anglia Photo Services
The Sewell Barn Theatre have given us a wide range of diverse material in lively and well presented productions in their atmospheric home venue. On offer now is something that is both light and whimsical, yet historically significant. These two plays were in a set of ten short dramas by Noël Coward collectively known as ‘Tonight at 8.30’. They were performed in groups of three, often with Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the lead roles. The plays were written and premiered in 1936, at a time when light and frothy dramas were a welcome antidote to an increasingly grim world.
The first work, Still Life, is set in the station buffet of ‘Milford Junction’ and looks at both staff and customers in this ever changing setting. We soon see patterns of who is coming and going and realise that we are watching the unfolding of at least three romantic relationships. If the story seems familiar, it emerged later as the basis of the classic film Brief Encounter. It also gives a delightful snapshot of what life was like on our railway system before the decades of decline.
A young lad called Stanley (Brad Mercer) pops into the refreshment rooms to refill his tray of snacks to sell on the platform, where he is chided by the matriarch in charge, Myrtle Bagot (Jan Farrar) who also snaps at waitress Beryl (Loretta Askew) who is shyly tittering at Stanley’s naughtiness. Ticket inspector Albert (Jamie Willimott) pops in for a tea from time to time and also to pursue his romance with a rather reluctant Myrtle. A customer, Laura (Kiera Long) enters the tea room distressed by having something in her eye. Those of us who just about remember steam trains will be familiar with this hazard. She is helped by Alec (Jonathon Redding) whose ‘trust me, I am a doctor’ line proves as unstoppable as ever! The grit is removed, and then as they look into each others eyes, the story begins. Their affair is played out over a number of Thursday afternoon meetings at the buffet as the play jumps forward a few months at a time. Both married with children, they are consumed by the passion of their clandestine affair and clearly enjoy each other’s company in settings more private than the station tea room.
Jonathon and Kiera give a touching, warm and very credible account of the affair and its brutal conclusion, while the other eight cast members give a gently humorous context to their dialogue. Jan Farrar’s Myrtle is the key figure in this. We see her as first a battle-axe and apparent misanthrope but she settles into a rather charming routine walking out with Albert.
Director Cassie Tillett gives us much detail of the bustle and business of the buffet, with the inevitably wide range of customer behaviours on display. She marks the passage of time between scenes with an empty set with faint blue lighting and appropriate music. These gaps at first seem over-long, but slowly you realise that they signify the passage of months at a time. An enjoyable and moving piece, well performed.
Red Peppers by contrast gives us a look on and off stage into the brash world of provincial music hall theatre. George Pepper (Andy Lofthouse) and Lily Pepper (Dawn Brindle) are a husband and wife comedy duo bringing saucy song and dance routines to their music hall audiences. Their routine goes wrong at the end, even though they often repeat it, and they blame anyone but themselves, and take out their anger on conductor Bert Bentley, who they accuse of drinking on the job. As we see them changing backstage their righteous anger escalates as they also shout at theatre manager Mr Edwards (Jamie Willimott). Amidst the chaos elderly act Mabel Grace (Sue Newstead) attempts to give a non-musical rendition of some classic text, gloriously badly. When the Peppers return to stage for their second number a catastrophe seems unavoidable.
Red Peppers is everything that Still Life is not. It is a really brash shock to the audience after the understated subtlety and quiet pathos of the tearoom scenes in the first play, but again it gives us a clear picture of a slice of thirties life. Portraying actors being a bit rubbish is a hard thing to do deliberately, as opposed to just being a bit rubbish as an actor. I am pleased to say that Andy and Dawn get it right, giving us a laughably grumpy pair of monsters who are getting fed up with their routine and with each other. The action is cringeworthy but quickly over, leaving us laughing at a satisfactorily awful ending!
Overall a well balanced and nicely presented pair of short dramas that remind us why Noël Coward was, and still is, one of the most popular writers for the English stage.
© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 2nd March 2023
Still Life and Red Peppers will be performed at the Sewell Barn Theatre, Constitution Hill, Norwich NR3 4BB between Thursday 2 March and Saturday 11 March 2023. Tickets available online at £11 and £12 from TicketSource via www.sewellbarn.org, also by phone via 0333 6663366. Booking fees are included in the ticket prices.