Great War/Cold War, Salisbury Studio Theatre

ALAN Bennett, JM Barrie and Lesley Bates share a birthday – 9th May – and now they are also linked in the production of two one-act plays entered by Salisbury Studio Theatre in the Totton and Woolstore Theatre festivals.

The plays, Barrie’s rarely performed The Old Lady Shows her Medals, and Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, had a preview outing at the Studio Theatre in Ashley Road, playing (as always) to packed houses.

As director Lesley Bates explained before the show, the festivals’ rules mean that each play must be set up in ten minutes and struck again in five – a tight-turnround for the cast crewing each others’ shows.

It all went hitchlessly on Saturday in Salis­bury, in an evening that opened with the Barrie play, written to raise funds for the victims of war and their families. Four “old” charwomen are sitting round a table in London’s East End, discussing the war and their sons at the Front, when the vicar arrives announcing that one of the soldiers has come home on leave.

He is a member of the Black Watch, and his mother is a proud Scot. But all is not as it seems.

The play is a curiosity, one of very few written during the Great War. Perhaps its title, The Old Lady …., is one of the problems. In the early years of the 20th century, anyone over the age of 50 was regarded as old, and so Mrs Dowie (Sue Bale) is given an unfortunate grey wig, which does nothing for her reading of the character.  James Patterson (the only cast member in both plays) is the returning soldier.  I am unsure why London charwomen, whose social status and function is clearly defined in Barrie’s opening narration, should have predominantly country accents.

Perhaps a bit more rehearsal before the competitive festivals will iron out the wrinkles.

The second play, Alan Bennett’s well- known story of actress Coral Browne’s meeting with exiled spy Guy Burgess in Moscow, should be a winner.

Rachel Fletcher is simply stunning as Coral Browne, catching the archness, cool wit and intrinsic kindness of the Australian actress. It is the best reading of the part I have seen.

David Taylor’s Burgess captures the isolation, shambolic charisma and irresistible charm of the Fellow Traveller everlastingly linked to Donald Maclean, the man with whom he travelled to Russia but had nothing in common save the spying.

An Englishman Abroad is full of Bennett’s celebrated observation, brilliantly performed by the Studio Theatre company.

Break a leg at Hanger Farm Arts Centre on 22nd March and Codford the following night.


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