Separate Tables, Salisbury Playhouse

Separate Tables1IN the post-Princess Diana era, when people deluge flowers at shopfronts, road verges or school gates after the death of someone they didn’t actually know, and sob at every sentimental soap opera, the idea of restraint and quiet desperation can seem rather strange, almost subversive.

In the age of social media, where Twitter trolls and Facebook bullies are just waiting to pounce, the exquisite politeness, unacknowledged loneliness and understated misery of Terence Rattigan’s characters at their Separate Tables might seem quaint and out-dated.

In fact, it is quite the reverse – with superb stagecraft, beautiful writing, a deep understanding of the human heart and excellent acting, Separate Tables feels very timely, reminding us that we do not know everything about everyone, that our kneejerk judgements can be painfully wrong and that kindness, generosity of spirit and tolerance of human frailty are qualities to be admired.

We get only the tiniest hints of the stories behind the quiet resignation of Mr Fowler (the always-delightful Graham Seed), Miss Meacham (Petra Markham) and Lady Matheson (Audrey Palmer) but we begin to understand them and care for them as the domestic dramas and personal tragedies unfold around them in the dining room of the Beauregard Private Hotel in Bournemouth.

Separate Tables2It is not so many years since people on restricted incomes and no family, lived such quiet, ordered and genteel lives in hotels just like this in Bournemouth, Eastbourne and other resorts.

Rattigan understood the need to keep up appearances, whether it is the fading beauty Mrs Shankland (a beautifully judged performance by Kirsty Besterman), the passion simmering beneath the alcohol-fuelled eloquence of politician-turned-journalist Mr Malcolm (Robert Perkins), Mrs Railton-Bell (Jane How), the bossy, narrow-minded widow who still dons the arctic fox stole and evening gown for dinner, trailing her nervous daughter (another exquisite performance from Kirsty Besterman) in her wake, or the retired army officer Major Pollock who is not at all what he seems (Robert Perkins again).

We can see very clearly the rocky road ahead for the thoughtful, intelligent doctor, Charles Stratton (Mawgan Gyles) and the shrill, self-righteous nag of a wife that his once-liberal fiancee (Eleanor Wyld) has become in the 18 months between the two acts.

Holding it all together, from the flotsam of middle class society washed up in her hotel to the sparky waitresses (Emily Wachter’s Mabel and Emma Noakes’ Doreen) who serve them, is Miss Cooper (Carol Starks), the manager. She observes everything and takes control when necessary, helping the waifs and strays to find their way. Part fairy godmother, part matron, she could be too good to be true, but she is no saint – she embodies the best sort of British values, not rushing to judgement but watching, listening and offering help and advice where they are needed.

Separate Tables may be a period piece, but in this excellent production, directed by Playhouse artistic director Gareth Machin, in the cleverly reconformed theatre, it feels timely and (that over-used word) relevant. We all need a bit more Miss Cooper and a bit less Mrs Railton-Bell! The production continues to Saturday 8th November.


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