Deckchairs, Halse Players at the Old Cider House

JEAN McConnell’s series of “Deckchairs”  playlets, with their small, all-female casts and minimal set, are a godsend for amateur societies. It is, perhaps, a slight surprise to find such safe fare on the menu at Halse, but every society needs a balanced programme and God of Carnage all the time would get a little wearing.

The formula is simple: two women in deckchairs, often thrown together by circumstance, in a wide variety of situations and moods, with imagined scenery and only personal props. The dialogue is generally light and amusing, the characters neatly drawn without any great need for psychological depth.

Halse’s programme starts with Garden Pests, a typical McConnell piece about two ladies of widely differing social background but a shared interest in horticulture, visiting a famous garden. Social class is always a fertile ground for comedy, and Ann Hoole as top-drawer Helena and Dawn Wylie as feisty Northern Cath bring it out to the full.

The Guilt Card moves into darker territory with a Baby Jane-like tale of sisters, one disabled and manipulative, the other long-suffering and (we now know) terminally ill. However, light and frothy is what McConnell does best: when dealing with weightier themes her dialogue can get a bit leaden, and her characterisation over-predictable. Even so, the performances of Jay Brooksbank and Katy Davies are subdued.

In Short Changed, a former head of an exclusive girls’ school finds herself being interviewed for a place in a retirement home by a former pupil with grounds for resentment; the going is rather less heavy than in the previous piece and the ending nicely balanced. Caroline Cook, though a shade under-animated at times, brings out the haughty froideur and underlying fragility of the ex-head and Lucy Turner is nicely enigmatic as the former victim placed for revenge.

‘Cupboard Love’ moves back into lighter mode as two cooking enthusiasts, who’ve joined a fitness group to shed a few of the results of their enthusiasm, pause to swap anecdotes and recipes only to discover they’ve both been feeding the same man! This is a sparkling little piece and Heather Davis and Rebecca Webb do it justice. And some of the recipes are mouth-watering.

On balance, a very pleasant evening in a beautiful setting. These playlets lend themselves (obviously) to outdoor performance; Stephen and Ann Hoole’s lovely garden is pretty much perfect.


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