SALISBURY’S multi-award winning Studio Theatre, now based in Ashley Road, has recently celebrated its 70th anniversary, but in all that time and all those plays, it has never produced a work that centres on LGBTQ characters and issues (to be fair, no-one had ever heard of the ever-expanding LGBTQ categorisations for the great majority of that time).
Plays focussing on gay characters in the 1980s, when Jane Chambers’ excellent Bluefish Cove was written, were few and far between, and those that did make any impact (outside big city fringe theatres) usually ended badly. Looking for positive role models was almost a lost cause.
When actress and playwright Jane Chambers introduced audiences to her seven-lesbian-and-one-straight woman cast summering on Long Island’s Bluefish Cove, she was out on her own. So it’s no surprise that the play is unfamiliar to audiences – in all the plays I have seen and reviewed since my vastly theatrical mother took me to see Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years at Bournemouth Pavilion almost 65 years ago, I had never heard of it until the Studio Theatre 2023/4 programme was announced.
So congratulations to Philippa Crundwell, the Salisbury-based poet and playwright and member of Studio Theatre who found it, persuaded the committee to take it on, cast a mix of Studio stalwarts and newcomers and directed it for the company. Her production continues until Saturday, and if the opening night audience was anything to go by, should be a sell-out success with local audiences.
The story is set in a seashore cabin and on the beach in front of it, which calls for (and gets) an amazing set on the tiny Studio stage. Designer Jemma Clarke and her eight-strong team not only created a working cabin with kitchen, wardrobes, bed and all the gadgets of the time, but also brought in 1,500kg (almost one and a half tons) of sand and 500 litres (just over 100 gallons) of water to create the sea and the beach.
Seven women – three couples and one roving single, lease four cabins at Bluefish Cove, with its view over the water to Brooklyn, every summer. The cove has been a lesbian getaway for decades, since it was “founded’ by a couple of friends in the 1930s. One of them has died, and the other is in a care home.
Kitty is a famous doctor-turned-author of self help manuals, and she’s with her “secretary” Rita, sculptor Annie (Lynnette Barnes, making a speedy Studio return after her July debut in Steel Magnolias) is with the divorced mother Rae, wealthy Sue is with the much younger Donna and Lil is alone after a life of short-term liaisons.
There’s a fifth cabin, always rented out to women. This year Eva happened to meet the letting agent when she had just walked out on her husband of 12 years and was in need of somewhere to stay. She meets Lil on the beach and the two fall into an easy conversation in which Lil (assuming that she is gay) invites her to a party. When Eva arrives, dressed up for the occasion and with eager expectations, she can’t quite understand what’s going on – but she soon does.
The director has been lucky in finding eight actors who have brought Chambers’ characters to such vivid life. Right from the first moment, as Lil is fishing off a rock in front of her cabin, Sophie Townsend nails the character of this determined, charismatic, warm, bragging and brave woman, and it’s no surprise that Eva is immediately attracted to a new friend. George Cotterill’s hesitant Eva is perfectly understood and paced.
Lynnette Barnes is the realistic, forthright and tender Annie, Shantell Braschler the home-body Rae, Nikki Shepherd the put-upon heiress Sue and Antonia Harding obnoxiously rude and greedy Donna. Clare Green makes the most of the Dr Cochran role, with Roz Skellorn as her devoted companion.
Last Summer at Bluefish Cove further enhances Studio Theatre’s reputation for brilliantly conceived productions and powerful acting and brought many of the packed audience to their feet. See it if you can.
Photographs by Anthony von Roretz of Trinity Photography