A NEW BLONDE BOMBSHELL STORMS THE STAGE
Summer seaside rep is not dead. Frinton Summer Theatre is marking its 75th year, and it’s worth celebrating , even though I caught the last play right at the end of its run (it sold out anyway, including three extra matinees, who needs critics?). There’s comedy, dance and Jacqui Dankworth to come this week, but I have to report that the final play – a premiere by Jon Canter – was a humdinger, a triumphant flourish for the season’s end. Four cracking performances, one of them by a real golden retriever; many fine jokes, and a sweet-hearted undertow of gentle melancholy about age, loss, love and memory.
Richard Wilson, that master of intelligent curmudgeonliness, plays a septuagenarian couples counsellor (“The first couple I saw were Gerald and Marjorie – that dates me”). He is trying to reconcile his final clients: a pretty abominable pair of nouveau-riches . In a series of short scenes – often picked up, niftily, in mid-conversation – we learn that Charlie is the manager of a volatile girl popstar called The Moon, and that his leather-trousered wife Apples (Jasmine Hyde) was his efficient PA but since marrying him does nothing but run a self-aggrandizing charity and make awful jewellery. Both are permanently affronted and intermittently savage.
But before, and between, these scenes in the first act the old man is alone onstage with his dog Grace: a part played with superb insouciance and expressive listening skills by Darcey, a golden retriever and former guide-dog in the most striking stage debut of the year so far. Stage tradition would suggest that Richard Wilson cannot have been entirely keen on sharing the stage with this blonde showstopper, but the rapport is tremendous. Canter’s sharp thoughtful script has him addressing exactly the sort of remarks to her that one does proffer to a familiar pet when alone; between that, and phone calls to his demented old mother’s care home, we learn where he is and has been in a brave and lonely life. And the dog, fully in control of her exits, moves and loyal expressions of attentiveness, does not detract one bit from the humanity of it. Even the occasional inevitable, British-audience-standard signs of “aaah!” cannot distract from Wilson’s magisterial command of our attention.
Canter writes some wonderful lines (not least Charlie’s cross “Do I LOOK deep to you?”) and Apples‘ prim, contemptuous irritability is both funny and exasperating: there is a nice sense of modernity about their shallow preoccupations set against the counsellor’s generational difference.
When it does become touching, near the end, the sour comic edge of which the older actor is a master cuts through schmalz with good moments of bathos. Aftar a splendid exchange after the couple reconcile (“What shall we do now?” “Leave!”) – I did cavil a bit at a final five-minute scene which tied up the story into too pretty a bow. I’d drop that. But I’d watch the play again: if only another theatre can get Wilson backm and cast a dog as stageworthy as Darcey.