Genre: Short Plays
Venue: Riverside Studios Crisp Road London W6 9RL
Does advertising a play as “rarely performed” excite you or raise your suspicions about the play’s entertainment value? I have to say that for me the latter is sometimes true. I’m likely to respond more positively if the play is the work of a respected playwright, either an early or ‘forgotten’ work for example. For this reason, I applaud Make&Bake Production’s choice of Blind Date by Horton Foote & 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton by Tennessee Williams, though Williams is certainly better known that the Pulitzer and Oscar Award winning Foote. Nonetheless, perhaps the full-house I was part of in Studio 3 at Riverside Studios on Friday night indicates how the London fringe is key to widening an audience’s experience of the works of respected dramatists.
Director Suresh Patel suggests in the programme that “both plays explore the repercussions that arise when… compassion breaks down between neighbours”. Then he adds that the plays “create two distinct worlds that nonetheless echo each other in various ways.” And indeed he seems to achieve a unity of purpose for the two plays through their use of similar design elements and doubling up of roles. A cut-away back wall is used in the set design of both: in Blind Date it represents the wall of a sitting room in a family home in Texas and in 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton it is the wall of the front porch in the cotton-growing area of Louisiana.
The style of design further suggests that the action happens in the 1930s or 40s (the 1930s for Blind Date given that Rudy Vallee’s radio show is alluded to and heard on stage). The four actor ensemble of Ross Ericson, Louise Templeton, Francesca Fenech and Sebastian Knapp double up to play husband and wife Robert and Dolores and Dolores’s niece Sarah Nancy and gentleman caller Felix in Blind Date and husband and wife Jake and Flora and their neighbour Silva Vicarro in 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton.
In placing the plays side by side, the audience cannot help notice how both plays exude a sense of America’s deep south. For instance, women in both plays are characterise as being or aspiring to southern ‘belles’: so we see Dolores, a beautiful and personable wife and social organiser and Flora, a skittish and vulnerable young beauty. Louise Templeton’s is wonderful in the role.
The configuration of both the pairing of characters in the first play and the forced and unnatural ménage a trois in the second shows that perhaps it wasn’t only the theme of compassion between neighbours that Foote and Williams explore in their plays but the role of women in the domestic economy of finding a marriage partner and setting up married life. It is a theme that Williams is fascinated with in Glass Menagerie.
In Blind Date the comically drawn characters of Robert (Ericson) and Dolores (Templeton) are compared to the awkward Sarah Nancy (Fenech) and her ill-equipment suitor Felix (Knapp). The married couple manoeuvrings around their domestic squabbles in front of the younger pair are very funny. The darker and more sinister characters of 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton’s of cotton ginning Jake (Ericson), his child-bride Flora (Fenech) and their Italian neighbour Silva Vicarro (Knapp) represent a distinctive difference from the comic roles we see them play previously. Firstly this is shown through Jake’s violence towards his wife and the destruction of his neighbour’s property. Then through Silva’s revenge against Jake exacted through Flora and lastly, Flora’s realisation that Jake fails her as both a man and husband.
Francesca Fenech’s is able to affect Flora’s previously girlish giggles to communicate her character’s tragic circumstance: the audience hears her child-like laughter become utterly tragic by the end of the play. It is to Fenech’s credit that she does not overplay the sentiment by making the young woman’s sadness hysterical.
If I have any criticism of the double-bill it is to do with two matters: the first relates to the actors use of American southern accents that seem to geographically assimilate Texas and Louisiana. This was unfortunate in making the two plays less differentiated than they might have been. The second is to do with the lack of subtlety in which Williams’s male characters menace Flora. In this way, the line between Jake’s caresses and physically restraining of Flora might have appeared more difficult to judge as intentional or otherwise. Nonetheless, I found the evening reacquainting me with the powerful work two great American playwrights.
Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Friday 28th October