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posted/updated: 03 Oct 2011 -
Say Something Happened & Black Comedy
Alan Bennett & Peter Shaffer
society/company: Riverside Players
performance date: 08 Oct 2010
venue: Eynsford Village Hall
reviewer/s: The Countess & Paul Johnson (Sardines Review)

I once sat on a table in Richoux Tea House next to Alan Bennett. It was very near to the time I first discovered his Talking Heads and so he was a bit of a literary hero for me. I had to contain my excitement and eagerness to shower him in questions about his legendary work (I was barely a teenager, if even that). Everything one could want him to be, he was. A gentle manner, a quiet demeanour and a stature that befitted such a respected writer.

‘Say Something Happened’ was originally a BBC play. Google it and you can see the 1982 piece in all its genteel glory. I always try to avoid the temptation of watching plays in television or film format if I haven’t seen them before as I like to see the director’s vision for a play. Sometimes this is unavoidable, if a play is more often known as a film for example, and inevitable comparisons are sometimes made. The quick peek at the BBC version confirmed my feeling that Terry Oakes’ production was spot on.

I was gently taken along by the story centred on ‘Mr. and Mrs. Rhodes’ and was left feeling rather sentimental and pensive. All three actors performed well, making the most of the well-designed set. I felt like I was at my Nan’s house and I think this is exactly what one is meant to feel. Some slight mishaps with the props (falling books for example, but well ad-libbed by the cast) just made the onstage action seem more realistic. The whole living-room had that slightly murky veneer of times past – faded colours, grubby paint and a stillness that often pervades the houses of the older generations.

John Harris and Brenda Joyce were well cast as the ageing couple. They were archetypal more mature people – repeating things other people have said, repeating themselves, talking to themselves – and they captured the straightforwardness of many of Bennett’s characters. Maddy Smedley’s ‘June Potter’ was another delight to watch. Her characterisation hovered between dappy and confused, a noticeable contrast to the seemingly assured and steady Rhodes.

The play progresses as Mrs. Rhodes develops the need to be upfront - her poignant honesty is very touching and enables us to see the guilt that overpowers her maternal emotions, a brief respite from the repressed façade of dignity that plagued the older generations. The working clock added a nice visual and auditory element and I liked the use of music when just the Rhodes’ were onstage – it was almost like a signal of their supposed isolation. The only thing that ruined the cosy, closeted world was Mrs. Rhodes’ slippers. In clearly what was an Eighties piece, I’m not sure the slippers were the most appropriate choice. Disappointing when everything else had been clearly thought out carefully...

In stark contrast, Peter Shaffer’s ‘Black Comedy’ was a fast-paced one-act farcical piece and provided the second half of Riverside Players’ double bill of theatre in Eynsford. Directing farce is by no means an easy task and cannot be taken lightly. Director Lawrence Watling’s die-hard cast were (I’m very sorry to say) unable to raise more than just a few titters from their audience with a performance that ran out of invention and creativity very early into their one-hour finale.

Shaffer’s famous and ingenious piece begins with the audience completely in the dark, literally. However, onstage the action carries on as if the lights are really on. It is only when onstage action experiences a sudden power-cut – turning their world pitch black – that the audience sees the opposite happen and the stage is flooded with light. Cue much feeling about and falling over, much to the audience’s delight... well, that’s the plan anyway.

With this kind of physical comedy it is especially important to play the scene for real and in a very naturalistic way (in other words: trust the writing and scenario to work for you instead of trying to be funny). However, the temptation to overact must have been too much for Ben Newton and several of his fellow cast members to resist. Even in a power-cut I’m sure we could all still find our way around our own living-room without too much trouble, and when somebody speaks to you in the dark it is extremely easy to tell which direction the sound is coming from. Instead Eynsford’s faithful were subjected to almost an hour of over-the-top fumblings and conversations between people who were talking to each other but looking in opposite directions.

The result was a clever idea that soon became boring, predictable and unfunny. This was a great shame because Richard Banks particularly, with support from, Paul Friett and Ian Slipper all turned in much worthier performances. Alas, however, this ‘Black Comedy’ was, by then, probably beyond saving.

Sorry, Riverside Players... but we know there are better productions to come from this talented society.

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