Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Day By The Sea by N. C. Hunter, Finborough Theatre,7-April - 2008, Directed by Tom Cooper

The programme notes told me that N. C. Hunter was once described as the 'English Chekhov'. So I knew what to expect: Lots of talk; Relatively little action (there was an offstage rock climbing bit but without real danger); Tidy and potentially happy endings dangled in front of the audience only to be snatched away leaving us to think that we were weak simple-minded and overly sentimental to want a happy ending in the first place; And, of course, a Doctor with plenty of charm and most of the best lines.
We got all of that of course but it wasn't exactly Chekhov. Far too many of the characters sat around telling the world what they were like instead of it coming from dialogue or characterisation (have you met my show-don't-tell hobby-horse?). I should point out that the programme notes also point out that his success at the time might have had more to do with the quality of the productions and cast than the actual plays themselves.
The reason the Finborough have 'rediscovered' this play is to act as a companion piece to Nicholas de Jongh's Plague over England which showed earlier this year and dealt with John Gielgud's arrest for importuning in a public convenience while he was preparing to bring A Day By The Sea into the West End. I was interested to imagine how some of the original actors (in truth I've only seen Gielgud and Ralph Richardson act and just heard of Sibyl Thorndike) would have played the parts. I felt that Stephen Omer, who played the John Gielgud part of Julian Anson, was more convincing in the role than the Gielgud of my imagination. I reckon that Gielgud would have been more mannered and come over a sight more ridiculously when his character was required to loosen up and rediscover romance. Of course the play originally ran for over a year so what do I know. On the other hand I could really see Ralph Richardson in the Doctor's part. It is probably unfair to William Maxwell, who did a good job, but I could see how convincing Richardson's batty charm would have been and I would have better understood why the nanny fell for his character.

Another thought about the comparison with Chekhov is that although Chekhov's plays have a strong, almost exact, sense period (i.e. the decades just straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) they are somehow timeless, this play feels stuck in grey post-war mud. I could say that almost every hide-bound attitude expressed in this play was swept away in the next decade and a half, but much the same fate arguably befell Chekhov. Perhaps in Chekhov the way of life changed but the people and their attitudes didn't, while the kind of people in this play have probably ceased to exist.

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