Image Credit: Many thanks as ever to Stuart Wineberg, Lionel Elliott and the Chameleons for the wonderful pictures.
I went to see the latest Chameleons’ production Spring Trio of Plays on Thursday 25th April. I like the mixed assortment of plays they often put on in the Spring as you have a variety of entertainment which have a powerful impact. None of the three plays were long enough to stage alone (at least not in this form) but worked very well in a trio format like this.
The plays were Effie’s Burning by Valerie Windsor, Ghost of a Chance by Brian J Burton, and In by the Half by Jimmie Chinn. There was a dark and sad side to all three plays. All had a strong emotional impact though I would say Effie’s Burning was probably the strongest here. I’m going to review each play on its own and then review how they worked as a whole.
Effie’s Burning – directed by Lorraine Biddlecombe
This was a classic two-hander play. The set was a simple one. A hospital bed with a cabinet besides it and a chair besides the bed but, following my post about writing plays where I discussed how the set conveys information that cannot be expressed by the characters, this was all that was needed. It was enough to take you into the world of the play and that is the role of the set. It can be seen as a character in its own right.
Effie was played by Marilyn Dunbar and Dr Kovaks by Lisa Dunbar. Effie is in hospital receiving treatment for burns after the rehabilitation house she was living in burned down. She is suspected of having caused the fire. She is an older woman in her sixties with a mental age of 10 and has lived in mental institutions since she was 13.
As the play progresses, Effie tells Dr Kovaks more of her past which includes child abuse, horrific parenting (especially by her father), and she was incarcerated in a mental institution for being a “moral defect”. Effie makes friends with Alice who has also been locked away for the same offence. It is very questionable the ladies deserved this treatment. Effie also wants to know where Alice has gone.
The gradual unfolding of Effie’s story had a powerful impact on the audience. I know I wasn’t alone in being close to tears (even Effie’s name had a sad history to it) but I was also very angry at the way this character had been treated. It was also incredibly sad her one true friend, we discover died, after having been separated from Effie for being a bad influence by people who thought they knew better.
Now there is wonderful writing doing what it is meant to do – bringing a character to life so much, you feel as if you’re not watching a play but a documentary – and making you want to somehow make things better for that character.
What was also clever here was Dr Kovaks conjured up a third character, Mr Jessop-Brown, just by telling the audience about her interactions with her boss when she was not in the hospital set visiting and treating Effie for horrible burn injuries. Let’s just say he’s not an enlightened character and you have the instant image of an overbearing, sexist bully, who also despises Dr Kovaks because she and her family were made refugees (from the Sudetenland).
But it is Dr Kovaks who finds out the truth from Effie. The likes of Jessop-Brown would have got nothing out of her (and would definitely not sympathise with mental health issues. He would be of the “get over it” school of thought, which is not helpful when dealing with depression, yet alone anything even more severe, as was the case with Effie).
Mention must also be made of the make up applied to Marilyn Dunbar. It was very realistic and I would have thought not that comfortable to wear so bravo.
It was an excellent play, wonderfully produced and acted and some of the most powerful writing I’ve seen for a while. It combined injustice with tragedy with sadness. Good writing can make you question things and this play does that in abundance. It also makes you wonder what happens after the play officially ends. You want to know somehow that Effie will be all right but that is not the point of the story. Its point is to question the way mental health issues were treated in the past, which leads on to looking into how they are dealt with now.
Ghost of a Chance – directed by Clare Britton
Loved the title of this as it is a ghost story with a twist and I love that kind of thing. The mood of this play was very different to Effie’s Burning in that it combined horror with sadness. The characters here were Mrs Terry (the caretaker played by Diana Mills), Mrs Dean (played by Jenni Prior), Mother (played by Liz Finbow), Daughter (played by Fiona Winchester), and Hopkins (played by Dave Collis).
Mrs Dean discovers one of her ancestors haunts an old deserted house so she arranges with the caretaker to spend thirty minutes in the house at midnight. The caretaker arranges to call for Mrs Dean at 12.30 am and tells her she will go and say a prayer for her in the church. The caretaker does not want to be anywhere near the house at midnight but cannot tell Mrs Dean much as to why.
As Mrs Dean sits alone in the house, she watches a dramatic reconstruction of what happened to the former occupants played out in front of her eyes. And it is not what she thought.
Yes, there was a suicide. Yes, one of her ancestors does haunt the place. That same ancestor is paying the price for a lie that led to the suicide of her daughter. The ghost of a chance comes in that the ancestor knows she might be able to get a descendant to take her place in the house forever. Does Mrs Dean escape that? Now that would be telling…
The make up was excellent especially for Mother. The attention to period costume (Edwardian would be my intelligent guess) was good and the set was made up of a mantelpiece, a few pictures, a writing table, and a sofa. These would have been “of the time” and is a quick way to get you into the right era for the story.
The emotions generated by this performance were horror, overwhelming sadness at the suicide, and the feeling the ghost had deserved all that they were getting! Great performances.
In by the Half – directed by Geoff Dodsworth
The title comes from the theatrical term used for the requirement for actors to be in the theatre for their performances at least half an hour before curtain up.
The characters are Madam (played by Liz Strevens), who was an actress and still imagines she is one of the greats, even though her glory days are long past, and Doris (who had been her dresser-companion and is now Madam’s housekeeper). Other characters are the Doctor (played by Sarah Phipps), Sylvia (played by Kaleigh Fagence), who is taking acting lessons from Madam, and Ursula (played by Carrie Laythorpe), who is Madam’s estranged daughter.
The set was a sofa, a dining table and chairs and a door and, as with the other sets, were used to great effect.
Doris and the Doctor keep up the pretence of Madam still being a great actress, though Doris keeps Madam in her place when required. This leads to a lot of humour in the first part of the play though the mood does change. The emotional impact of this play was amusement leading to sadness leading to relief that, come the end, Madam is reconciled with her daughter but it is not going to be for long. Ursula is dying and wanted to say a final goodbye to her mother. To begin with it looks like this will not happen. It is well meaning Sylvia who ends up ensuring Ursula is let into the house to be able to speak to her mother at all.
Also come the end of the play, we find out the truth about Madam’s marriage to Ursula’s father, what Ursula really thinks of acting (she did follow her parents into the profession) and when Ursula leaves to go home, Madam is in a poignant mood, something that throws Doris somewhat as she’d assumed Ursula just wanted money from her mother again.
What this play achieves is a sense of change. You get the strong impression Madam will not be quite so “into herself” as she had been before Ursula’s visit. You also feel sorry for Madam and Ursula and wish things could have been better for both of them much earlier on in their lives.
The real tragedy here then is wasted time, rather than Ursula’s illness as such. The moral, if you could call it that from this play, is to repair relationships while you have the time to do so. But the great thing is you pick all that up from the story. There is no preaching. You are drawn to this conclusion, which is achieved by skillful writing. Again, excellent performances all round.
I enjoyed all three plays. All were well written and the performances were great. But for impact alone I think the best was Effie’s Burning. To be able to have a character, Dr. Novaks, talk to the audience and hold them spell bound, having to find out what was going to be revealed next, was a fantastic thing to achieve both in the writing and the performance. And I’m not going to forget the make up in a hurry for either Effie or Mother in Ghost of a Chance. Both realistic, both quite creepy, albeit in different ways.
Can theatre make you think? Yes. Effie’s Burning does that particularly well and without lecturing. The issue of how we deal with mental health issues is still as relevant as ever. Ghost of A Chance is a horrible reminder of the consequences of actions (and there always are consequences). In by the Half shows the importance of reconciliation and being honest with one another. Madam and Ursula got on so much better when the pretences were swept away. Now there is a lesson for us all I think.
Well done to the Chameleons for an excellent night.
Also many congratulations to them for getting through to the quarter finals of the All England Drama Festival with Effie’s Burning. They will be performing the play again in Sherborne on 4th May. I would say good luck but believe “break a leg” would be much more appropriate! (The idea of “break a leg” comes from the belief that if you wish an actor good luck, the opposite will happen so by hoping for something that on the face of it is rather horrible, only good things will happen instead. I do hope that works, folks!).
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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