Friday, December 6, 2019

Waiting in the Wings

Waiting in the Wings by Noël Coward.  Canberra REP and The Q, directed by Stephen Pike.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre November 20–23 2019; at Canberra REP, Naoné Carrel Auditorium, Theatre 3 November 27–December 7 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 5

Director – Stephen Pike; Costume Design – Anna Senior; Lighting Design – Nathan Sciberras; Sound Design – Neville Pye; Properties – Brenton Warren

Photo: Foyer Photographs

Set designed by Andrew Kay
“The Wings”
a charitable retirement home for actresses

Director Stephen Pike notes “The [1960] play never had any resounding success for Coward, unlike many of his earlier scripts, however I have found through our rehearsal period the text held many surprises.”

Indeed.  These surprises are the reason for seeing the show.  Among many, the two I would like to mention specifically are Joan White’s performance of Sarita Myrtle, whose dementia is funny, sad and truthful; and Ros Engledow as Lotta Bainbridge, the very opposite.  She is self-aware and consistently rational, and Ros’ performance takes the play to its most telling point in the final scene when her son unexpectedly visits with a plan to take her out of “The Wings”.

Though the London critics of the original production “had neither the wit nor the generosity to pay sufficient tribute to the acting”, according to Coward, I’m guessing that he was expected to be more ‘sparkling’ in his fiftieth play.  I can see that this script doesn’t compare in this sense with, say, Private Lives (reviewed on this blog at Belvoir, Sydney, 2 October 2012).

The first two scenes come over as a bit too ordinary, naturalistic in style, with what sounds like a not very promising ‘sparkling’ plot about a committee that won’t spend money on making the verandah into a ‘solarium’ to capture the weak English sunshine.  No need for ‘mad Englishmen’ going ‘out in the midday sun’ here.

Then, suddenly, after an interval for a retirees’ toilet break and another glass of bubbly, Sarita Myrtle, quoting lines from all sorts of roles she may have had or imagined she had since 1904, out-sparkles the presumed other central dramatic through-line – why will May Davenport (in a strong performance by Liz Bradley) not talk to Lotta Bainbridge?

Sarita goes on to win the dramatic conflict by nearly burning the house down and having to be taken away, imagining she is leaving this ‘hotel’ for another ‘tour’, for a place where the doctor says she will be ‘treated kindly’.

Nowadays, let alone in 1960, the treatment of people with dementia is an issue of great public importance.  And I have to say I wonder with some trepidation about my own future as I approach octagenarian status, remembering my own mother, like Sarita, similarly mis-perceiving the real world for some eight years until her fortunately peaceful death at 92.  The quality of Joan White’s performance allowed me to laugh with Sarita, not at her, and I thank her for that.

The same goes for Ros Engledow. Noël Coward wrote “I wrote Waiting in the Wings with loving care and absolute belief in its characters. I consider that the reconciliation between "Lotta" and "May" in Act Two Scene Three, and the meeting of Lotta and her son in Act Three Scene Two, are two of the best scenes I have ever written. I consider that the play as a whole contains, beneath the froth of some of its lighter moments, the basic truth that old age needn't be nearly so dreary and sad as it is supposed to be, provided you greet it with humour and live it with courage.”

No matter what the critics thought in London in 1960, Ros Engledow and Liz Bradley absolutely got their reconciliation right; and Ros again with Iain Murray was even stronger in that final scene.  Despite what I have to see as a very ‘bitty’ structure of Coward’s script, her Lotta developed subtly, and truthfully, from her justifiably hesitant arrival at “The Wings” to her confident new appreciation of the importance to her of a real family rather than that offered by her son.

Maybe the thought of a woman making such an independent decision was still too much to accept in 1960, even by critics who were well aware of other playwrights, like George Bernard Shaw – whose Mrs Warren’s Profession showed such a woman way back in 1894.  Maybe we were only supposed to laugh at Noël Coward, not to take him seriously as we have, say, Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House since 1879.

So, thanks to Stephen Pike, artistic director of The Q and director here for Canberra REP, for this surprise, and all the women (and men) in this production of Waiting in the Wings.  I now have a new appreciation of Noël Coward and hope to continue to greet old age “with humour and live it with courage.”

The Cast:

Residents at “The Wings”:

Bonita Belgrave – Lis de Totth                Cora Clarke – Adele Lewin
Maude Melrose – Penny Hunt                 May Davenport – Liz Bradley
Almina Clare – Micki Beckett                 Estelle Craven – Alice Ferguson
Dierdre O’Malley – Liz St Clair Long    Lotta Bainbridge – Ros Engledow
Sarita Myrtle – Joan White                     Topsy Baskerville – Golda Bergdicks

The Others:

Perry Lascoe – Peter Holland                  Sylvia Archibald – Nikki-Lynne Hunter
Osgood Meeker – Dick Goldberg            Dora – Rina Onorato
Doreen – Rina Onorato                           Zelda Fenwick – Antonia Kitzel
Dr Jevons – Iain Murray                         Alan Bennet – Iain Murray