A Month of Sundays by Larbey, directed by Janet Clark
An amusing, uplifting and light-hearted play. The story revolves around two residents in a rest home: Cooper, who has voluntarily left his family to avoid the indignity of depending on them, and his friend Aylott.
To manage the painful ritual of Sunday family visits and empty condescension the two inmates tackle it with wit and humour, aware that life can only be endured if treated as a comedy.
Cooper Keith Wishart
Aylott Ian Evans
Julia Ruth Aylward
Peter Robert Hall
Nurse Wilson Alice London
Mrs Baker Sue Hicks
Review by Peter Steptoe, Croydon Advertiser
For those of us of mature years, the premise of this play was quite familiar, as nursing home visitation and subsequent occupation with or without dementia often beckons.
Bob Larbey has written an excellent play on the loneliness and invisibility of the elderly. One can be trapped in physical frailty with an active mind and memory intact or be physically fit with a decaying ones. Such was the descriptive power of Larbey’s writing that I visualised Mr Knitely paddling in the lake, thinking he was at the seaside with bucket and spade and the Colonel who retained his rank but died in his sleep and was removed from the home in a hearse by the side entrance. Neither of these characters ever appeared but are etched on my memory.
Cooper the one with the active brain and frail body was beautifully underplayed by Keith Wishart, his loneliness was covered by wit, sarcasm and sexual banter, usually with Nurse Wilson, sympathetically played by Alice London. I liked Mrs Baker (Sue Hicks) the cleaning lady who met Cooper’s sarcasm with an aggression of her own. She cared for her aged Father in her home as we used to do in days of yore. It was nice to find out that she refused to let anybody else clean Cooper’s room.
Ruth Aylward had the unsympathetic part of the long distance daughter who visited on the first Sunday of the month. She handled the reconciliation scene at the end very well and we all rejoiced. Her Husband Peter (Robert Hall) exuded sweet reasonableness and his dissertations on the A5, they came from Milton Keynes, had a familiar ring to those who experience the M25.
My first impression of Cooper’s friend Aylott (Ian Evans) was that he looked too young; tall, slim without grey hair, but the decaying mind in a fit and healthy body soon dispelled my unease. I was moved by his confusion toward the play’s end with its finish on a note of diminuendo. Congratulations to Alan Matthew and John Heather on the set design and Director Janet Clark on giving us a play with a message; for if you live long enough you may well get there.
Review by John Drewry
This is my second review, I believe, of a Janet Clark production, the first being The Beauty Queen of Leenane. She is a bold director who, from my limited experience, chooses challenging plays. No-one, I think, would deny The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a challenging play. Written by one of theatre’s enfants terribles, it’s full of dark humour blended with scary moments and a good dose of pathos. Well, in a different way, so is A Month of Sundays. The deceptively comic one-liners and ripostes are seasoned by the graveyard humour of two old boys raging against the dying of the light. Shades of Vladimir and Estragon pervade the innocence. And there are scary moments, too. “I’m frightened”, says Cooper. It is no wonder. The Grim Reaper is only just around the corner, and there are increasing signs of his inevitable appearance. George Hartley goes for a paddle, Cooper keeps going for a piddle. Aylott is losing his marbles. Pathos abounds, the very stuff of comedy, of course. Especially at the very end – here we have the comic genius at work, blending farce and tragedy so we’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. Finally, let’s not overlook that A Month of Sundays is challenging for the sheer size of Cooper’s part – on stage all the time, even when offstage taking a leak.
The choice of A Month of Sundays is a good one. More or less guaranteed to entertain the audience which, after all, is really why we do it. It’s from the pen of an extraordinary man, who kind of had a career in reverse, as your excellent Programme illustrates. Starting in radio and television, his last days were spent writing material for the Ockley Village Hall Amateur Dramatic Society. A Month of Sundays was his first stage play, and with 20:20 hindsight you can see it comes from someone who wrote for radio and television. For it is a play of words, and indeed would make an excellent radio play. Radio, as they say, is like television but with better pictures. The movement, look, expressions and environment of the characters are imagined. On television, it is not that much different. True, you have vision, but most of the movement is provided by the camera, not the characters. Since TV grew up and ceased to point static cameras at stage plays, our sense of movement and expression when watching TV is largely an illusion created by the camera which, unseen, dances around with close-ups, pull-aways, tracking, overhead shots and fast cuts. Punchlines especially are often fast close-ups, to emphasise the joke. Talking to the audience is replaced by talking to camera in close-up.
The theatre director has no such available techniques. The relatively static plotline has to be brought to life on stage, and I’m glad to say that this production got it spot on. The choreography was economical and effective. The characters moved when they had to, stayed still when necessary, and never clashed, scissored or masked. So from start to finish we, the audience, were relaxed and softened up for much laughter.
A word about the set and also some technical matters. The set presents a dilemma for the director and the designer. There has to be a clinical, institutional inference, otherwise we’re simply in a bed sitting room. On the other hand, we don’t want a Spartan room in a hospital. What I saw and experienced was again spot on. I suspect the team fiddled with this a little, in terms of colour, decor and properties. Well, the fiddling paid off. The visual atmosphere created was excellent, complemented as always in my experience at Theatre 62 with confident and apposite lighting and sound. I have one extra word on the lighting, by the way. In the final moments of the play, the decision was taken to pinpoint the characters in a tight spotlight. Good thought, physically emulating what a TV production would do with a close-up. On the night I saw it, however, the inevitable difficulty expressed itself in terms of geography and timing. When exactly do we lower everything else and produce the tight spot? Are the characters in exactly the right position? Do they take up position before we bring the lighting down, or do they move into the spot? This is a nightmare. I have been there, and I have a recommendation. Simply, don’t obsess about a tight iris. It works just as effectively with a larger pool of light, allowing the actors to ensure they’re in it without effort. The effect, with the rest of the stage going dark, is just as poignant.
Stage Management provided the usual Theatre 62 high standard of technical and HR support. Only one amusing observation on scene changes. At the end of the first scene, Cooper went into the bog, followed a few seconds later by the female scene-changer.
And finally, on the sort of technical, Bob Larbey mercilessly exploits the tragedy of old age in this comedy – incontinence, dementia. It’s a constant battle for balance – tragedy feeds into comedy and vice versa. Given that incontinence gives us such a rich seam of lavatorial material, I wonder whether the pathos would be enhanced if we saw Cooper’s wet patch at the end of the play.
Let me now turn to the characters themselves. First of all, congratulations to anyone prepared to take on the massive part of Cooper. Theatre 62 seems to like offering these huge parts to actors – Ian Evans admirably tackled Richard Strauss quite recently, I seem to remember. Keith Wishart is to be commended. I saw from the Programme that he’d done it before. I’m sure he found this both a blessing and a curse. Many of the words are probably still there, the blessing. The curse can sometimes be that the moves and moods from the previous production can also still be there, which can intrude on the current production.
Keith’s urbane, laid-back delivery was superb. It both relaxed us and drew us in. There is a lot of talking to the audience (aka talking to camera), but rather than talking at us, Cooper invited us into his world, indeed his room, for a confidential chat. Not as an aside, but as a chum. His dirty moments could have been a little dirtier, just a little more overt and spelled out, giving more weight, for instance, to Mrs Baker’s comment “I thought you’d been clean for too long”. For Cooper is a dirty old man, providing much (but not all) of the banter with Wilson. Just a little more reverie at times, drawing us into his fantasy, so we can also strip Wilson naked in our minds. My other mini-observation is around the wonderful lines “Bring me Aylott, send Aylott to the King” and the cod echoes that follow. This could have been more drawn out, with each as a singular performance in different voices. And a Director’s note – in this little scena, Mrs Baker coming in unseen behind him at the very beginning of these thespian deliveries would have milked it for more laughter. It’s always funny to watch someone watching someone making a spectacle of themselves. Finally, PSHAW, I think, is expressed exactly like that, which is why Cooper then spells it out – P-SHAW, a cartoon bubble rather like KERPLUNK! But overall, these are mere peccadilloes in a nearly flawless performance. You have given me this luxury with such a fine production, and I shall continue in this vein.
The other half of the double act, Ian Evans’ performance as Aylott. Another assured performance, clearly on top of his words and the sense, or sensitivity, of the play. I must admit, on his first entrance I thought Matthew Parris had come on stage. Ian has a camp persona, and it is no wonder he’s done a few pantomime dames in his time. Please, I don’t mean he played Aylott as a pantomime dame, simply that in his body movements and his voice, Aylott came across as an old thespian who’s ended up in a home for retired actors. And in truth, what’s wrong with that? It actually worked very well, casting Aylott in sharp contrast to Cooper. They consequently bounced off each other very well. I do have a couple of notes for Aylott. First, I’d have liked to have seen him older. Clearly he can achieve this, because I’m sure he was older as Richard Strauss. The other note concerns the handling of approaching dementia. In a word, or words, forget the limbs. Think about the eyes, the windows into the brain. They no longer see what we see, they stare into eternity. Take care of the eyes, and the body will follow. But importantly, it’s in that order.
I will therefore turn to Cooper and Aylott as a couple. There are many other examples of two people of the same sex being thrown together by circumstance and forming some kind of relationship. Neil Simon has exploited it, as has Samuel Beckett. Gentlemen, you made me laugh a great deal. But you didn’t make me cry enough. It’s the pathos where the work is always needed. “Don’t leave me Aylott” is the saddest line in the play, and the latent fear of every devoted couple. To milk it needs several joined-up factors rehearsing. Firstly, Aylott losing focus, his eyes no longer looking at anything tangible. Secondly, Cooper staring at Aylott (us watching someone watching someone). Thirdly, silence and timing. Often we’re scared of real pauses in our fight for words and cues. But they’re our most potent tool in the right places. “Don’t leave me Aylott” should move the stoniest of hearts.
The other area which always needs work is the building and exploitation of mantra and rote. These are the little securities all intimate couples create between them as a protection against the outside world, a secret code. “Oh much the same, mustn’t grumble, What would you say to a whisky?, Hello whisky, The Escape Committee”, need to be rehearsed away from the script as little exchanges, until they take on a special significance for the audience, so that they almost want to join in.
Turning my attention to Wilson now. An exemplary performance from Alice London. She never let her professionalism as a nurse drop. And it was her dealing with the sexual banter which made her so believable. She never allowed it to slip into farce, but handled her patient just as a good nurse would, with compassion and care, but never patronising. We know she cared, because she broke down over a patient’s treatment, and that scene with Cooper was particularly touching.
Our other member of staff, Mrs Baker, was similarly great fun. In some ways, Sue Hicks had the most difficult part – this happens sometimes with the smaller parts. It’s because she had to indulge at times in what I call counterpoint acting – that is, actions not related to the words. Her raison d’etre was to clean the room, but her words were the banter with Cooper, who is merciless. Many actors find this difficult, because you have to look as though all your concentration is on the job in hand, while at the same time delivering repartee. Such scenes need a lot of work. Let us first consider ‘the business’. The only way to do this convincingly is to choreograph it in real time. How much cleaning is there, what am I going to clean, how long must it take? The problem with anything less than that is that the audience doesn’t really believe you’re cleaning – especially if you go over the same little bit several times or, at the other end of the spectrum, you don’t do it properly. The second factor is that you have to decide when to break off from your cleaning and when not to. In the real world, most of Mrs Baker’s dialogue would be spoken ‘over her shoulder’ while she was cleaning, rather than stopping and turning on every reply. The Mrs Bakers of this world are unstoppable in their brisk, or brusque, efficiency, and only break off occasionally when they really want to make a point. Sue’s performance was attractive, entertaining and funny. I simply try to show where we can get more.
And so we come to the daughter and her husband. A very fine blending of the irritated, the obnoxious, the indifference, the guilt and the hang-ups, from Ruth Aylward and Robert Hall. Robert managed the impression of really not wanting to be there, coupled with a patronising attitude, superbly well. Between him and the Director, his slightly jittery movements were never overdone, but we knew his metaphorical eye was on the exit. Julia is a more subtle part, and although the pair of them are a foil for Cooper, with the father and daughter there is also much pathos. It all comes out later in the play, “I wanted to please you but I never got close, I never felt that you needed me”, and that rambling tension between father and daughter with roots so deep they’ll never be expunged. Yet there was an element of the confessional about it, and a certain degree of closure, and I thought the pathos was handled very well indeed.
Full marks to wardrobe, make-up, hair and prompting which, in the finest tradition of theatre, were all unnoticeable and seamless.
And a final, final note for all who act in comedy. Please remember to pause while the audience is laughing and not bring your next line in until the laughter starts to die of its own accord.
John Drewry, October 2016