The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore
other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to
normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
BBC 1969 and YouTube Spring 2022
first play, uncharacteristically a social melodrama rather than witty
comedy, made his name as playwright and actor in 1924.
an unusual and daunting demand on its female star – the actress first
cast in the 1924 premiere chickened out two weeks before opening – and a
major attraction of this 1969 television production is the courage and
emotional nakedness Margaret Leighton brings to the role.
plays a woman approaching fifty but desperately trying to hold on to her
youthful image by acting gay (in the old sense) and abandoned,
surrounding herself with a Young Set, and taking on a string of young
the layers of make-up are getting thicker, her latest toyboy is the same
age as her own son, and the effort is exhausting.
the course of the play her lover will leave her, her most trusted friend
will urge her to accept her age, and her son will turn on her and accuse
her of abandoning him to his own demons in her selfishness.
last time I reviewed this play, in 2008, I noted that star Felicity
Kendal, although older than her character, looked too young to generate
this 1969 version Margaret Leighton, about the same age as the
character, bravely allows herself to be costumed and made up in
unflattering ways and shot in extreme close-ups that call attention to
every sag and wrinkle.
the close-ups allow her to play every twitch of panic and exhaustion as
the mask of gaiety becomes more difficult to keep up. The actress does
not protect herself, but commits fully to exposing a woman losing a
battle against time, and it is a deeply moving portrayal.
co-star role (Coward's in the premiere) is the son, a man born too late
for the Great War and with just a bit too much sensitivity to be
satisfied with the empty hedonism of the Twenties.
with Richard Warwick, a relatively lightweight actor, it struck me for
the first time that he has something in common with Osborne's Jimmy
Porter three decades later, though he lacks Jimmy's capacity for outrage
and can only work himself up to some petulant whining.
big scene of the play is the son confronting the mother with all his
complaints about her immorality and neglect (an encounter that owes a
lot in its structure and passion to Hamlet's Closet Scene), and this
time your sympathies will all be with the mother.
Director Philip Dudley moves his cameras fluidly around a large and lovely set, always coming back to the telling close-ups of Margaret Leighton. Jennifer Daniel as the mother's sensible friend and Felicity Gibson as a cool-headed young woman provide solid support.
And Alan Melville, in the small role of a bitchy older man, does a wicked impersonation of the older Noel Coward, creating the haunting effect of the young Coward writing his older self into his play.
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