Many of the plays had the thematic links of unhappy relationships between husbands, wives and families. Some of them have been revived although rarely has the complete series been performed in one season since their first appearance. Chichester Festival Theatre revived six of them. All ten were revived in Los Angeles in 2007 and the Shaw Festival in Ontario did so in 2009. The BBC televised eight of the plays in 1991 with Joan Collins, John Alderton, Sian Phillips, Anthony Newley, John Standing and Moyra Fraser. Others have been adapted for television and the cinema. The most famous film adaptation of “Still Life” is that expanded in 1945 by Coward and director David Lean to make “Brief Encounter” with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard and an awful lot of Rachmaninov played by Eileen Joyce. It was re-made in 1974 with Sophia Loren and Richard Burton, but we don’t talk about that one. Kneehigh had great success with its stage adaptation of “Brief Encounter”, turning it into a live performance of the film. There is also a gay version of the film as well an opera based on it, the latter written by André Previn for Houston Grand Opera in 2009.
Following its triumph last year with Coward’s “Waiting in the Wings”, Pentameters Theatre is reviving “Still Life” and “Red Peppers”. Both plays deal with developing relationships that break down. “Still Life” is set in the railway station of a northern town, where housewife Laura Jesson meets Alec Harvey, a doctor, when she gets a piece of grit in her eye. They begin at first an innocent relationship but it soon develops into something deeper and passionate. It’s a short play in five brief scenes, covering almost a year in time as the affair blossoms and then dies when Alec moves away.
Most people will know the plot from the film, Coward expanding the play, filling in background detail, and yet giving no real evidence that the pair make love. In the play it is apparent that they do. Aline Waites, director of the Pentameters production, says she has “never been a fan” of the film but reading Coward’s original script she “found his wit and his characters really sprang to life. In reproducing these characters we have endeavoured to make them as real as possible and to speak the dialogue in as natural and as telling a way as we could without changing a single word.”
The cast has succeeded in its task and there is no fear of sentimentality creeping in; nor is there any underscoring of the action by the use of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. The only sounds are those of locomotives passing through the station. The action happens rather more speedily than it does in the film. Contrasting with the sadness of the main story is the comedy romance between buffet manageress Myrtle Bagot and her ticket-collecting friend Albert Godby, a knockabout relationship if ever there was one. There’s a third love-story involving waitress Beryl and her would-be beau, young porter Stanley. Three stories in one all over in forty-five minutes makes “Still Life” a little gem.
Laura and Alex, in the performances given by Fiona Graham and Elliot James, seem a little on the young side. However, Déirdra Whelan as Myrtle and David Raymond as Albert are spot-on – Myrtle a bossy-boots and also a standoffish tease to Albert. They have great rapport and provide terrific comic relief. Vivienne Brown too is a delight as Laura’s appalling friend Dolly Messiter interrupting the lovers’ romantic reverie like a cold shower.
The musical side of this double-bill comes in “Red Peppers”, the curtain-raiser that details the awfulness of a marriage between two not-too-talented music-hall artists who are on their way back down the ladder of success. George and Lily Pepper are still purveying their act long past its sell-by date in a Palace of Varieties in a small English provincial town, complete with an authentic period backcloth by Mike Lees. Dressed as sailors and a couple of cads, they go through the motions and even though they have done the act countless times, Lily still manages to ruin it by dropping a prop telescope. This causes more ructions in a relationship that’s already none too happy with accusations of infidelity. Matters get worse when both the theatre manager and the orchestra conductor join in the arguments and it all ends in tears.
They may be a washed-up act but the Red Peppers at least have a couple of good Coward songs to perform – ‘Has anybody seen our ship?’ and ‘Men about town’. Coward called the piece “a vaudeville sketch sandwiched between two parodies of music hall songs”. Again he shows his economy by building the relationship between George and Lily in just a few well-drawn strokes. And once again David Raymond and Déirdra Whelan provide a believable resonance for the constantly bickering couple – that they are probably at each others’ throats every night of the week and that it is only the act that keeps them together. “Has anybody seen our ship / The HMS Peculiar? / We’ve been on shore for a month or more / And when we see the Captain we shall get ‘what for’”, they sing, their blithely comical turn hiding rawness and sadness. This is Coward capturing the awfulness of a couple with nothing left but a professional bond. Coward wrote some minor classics when he compiled “Tonight at 8.30”. Perhaps it is time to revive the other plays, beginning with “Shadow Play” and “Star Chamber”.
- Still Life with Red Peppers is at the Pentameters Theatre, The Horseshoe Pub, 28 Heath Street, Hampstead, London NW3 until Sunday 13 March 2011
- Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 5
- Tickets 020 7435 3648