PETER Shaffer’s double bill The Private Ear and The Public Eye was first performed in 1962, and starred Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams. Set in a time of innocence before the discovery of sexual intercourse (according to Philip Larkin that came a year later) they are both dated and timeless.
David Riley chose The Private Ear for Frome Drama Club’s contribution to the 2016 Frome Festival, and cast three young actors whose performances could not have been bettered on the professional stage.
Bob (known as Tchaik) is a shy, gentle music and art loving northerner living alone in London after the death of his father. He has met a girl at a Promenade Concert, and plucked up the courage to ask her out. Knowing he has neither social nor culinary skills, he has invited his assured Cockney colleague Ted to help out.
The girl, a goddess in Tchaik’s eyes, had only been at the Prom because there was a free ticket, and had been bored by classical music. Predictably, she was more at home with Ted’s easy banter than Bob’s fey intensity.
The inevitable outcome, performed in dumbshow over the sounds of Madame Butterfly, can seem stagy and contrived.
But in David Riley’s sensitive and multi-faceted production, Ed Henderson and Bethany Heath bring off this painful encounter with almost unbearable poignancy.
And Pete White’s Ted was an all-too-recognisable wide boy, a flag carrier for the rise of the “Me” generation whose apotheosis is exemplified by the selfie and the current political class.
Many of those in the audience at the Steiner Academy’s intimate studio remembered their own experiences of the joys and fears of first dates in the early 60s, sparely evoked with posters, a stereogram and Wharfdale speakers. Life might be very different in the 21st century, but the pain of rejection remains the same.