Fred and Madge
by Joe Orton
June 16th - 23rd, 2001
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
A common error
of those reviewing plays is to spend half the review summarising
the plot. With Fred and Madge, Joe Orton's "lost" play, this is
not something I could even attempt to do. Or, in a nutshell, Madge
left Fred (or was it the other way around?); Madge planned to marry
Jimmy (or was it Webber?); everybody ended up in India.
John McSpadyen certainly had his work cut out in attempting to put this on stage and to his credit he produced a play which never ceased to amuse." "It is still a mystery why this play is so little known. No critical reviews of the work of Orton which I have read make even a passing reference to it. Written in 1959, it long pre-dates the three famous full-length plays for which which Orton is best known." "It would serve no purpose here to consider the play itself although, to be honest, I found it shapeless and just a bit too long. Had it been properly edited for professional performance I don't doubt that it would have been sustantially re-worked.
In fact, on a practical point, I think the director made a mistake in keeping two intervals; it would have worked better with just one.
Performances were overall of a high standard. Ralph Ward, in particular, as the eponymous Fred, hit just the right note of utter confusion, while retaining an impeccable inner logic. As an audience, we needed his "common man" presence to anchor us into some form of reality. Otherwise the play risked flying off into the stratosphere.
As Madge, his wife (for at least part of the play), Chrissie Gorman gave us a delightful gamut of facial expressions, although I felt that her diction sometimes let her down. This was not a play where you could "catch up" as an audience. Every line had to be perfectly pointed of else the humour was totally lost and the action had moved on.
Unfortunately a number of the cast shared this fault, and I felt at times that they had not wholly grasped the playing style necessary for a play such as this. I thought that Tom Rainbird as Webber (or Jimmy) seemed particularly ill-at-ease, and even at times rather embarrassed at being involved in the play - I'm sure he'd have felt more comfortable with a good old-fashioned characterisation.
There were nevertheless many comic gems which I shall remember for months to come. I adored Vanessa Westing's voice and mannerisms as both the Gladyses; Helen McCormack was a delight as Oldbourne the professional insulter; and Denis Turner was unforgettable as the Old Man/Madge's father/Wilkins the butler. The audience collapsed with laughter at the very sight of him.
As Madge's sister Queenie, Kay Perversi had a substantial and yet under-developed rôle. She had to be Madge's foil but her character was not in itself particularly funny. To her credit, she was always a pleasure to watch and kept our attention, despite, on the night that I saw the play, some chronic coughers in the first three rows.
Harriet Watson, too, coped well with her difficult part as the ridiculously butch Dr (or was it Professor?) Petrie. Unfortunately I felt that all the humour was in the rather gross characterisation, and I didn't find it very funny.
Mark Borowski surprised us all by suddenly emerging from row D halfway through the first act. A nice little coup de théâtre, but then regrettably Orton seemed to have run out of ideas about what to do with him. He got very drunk, sobered up and joined in the action on stage.
Laurence Rampling had the audience in stitches when playing the nurse, in the scene where Carry On Matron met Private Lives, but he rather lost me when standing in the audience addressing the stage at a later point in the play. But how thankless to be labelled in the programme as "Small Part Player".
The set, designed by the director and Keith Syrett, was a treat, the bold colours and painted clouds echoing the surrealism of the play as a whole. It was also very practical in terms of bringing on chairs, hospital beds, lamp-posts, baths and everything else which needed to emerge from backstage. I was impressed, too, by the sudden appearance of a slope which was required for Fred to carry out his Sisyphean task of stone-rolling.
The lighting was appropriately bright and the costumes, by Noreen Spall, a feast of gaudy colours and period detail. The final tableau, with the entire cast dressed as for a Maharaja's court, was an utter delight." "I must also mention the wonderful array of stage properties assembled and, I understand, also made by Lucy Nandris. Who could ever forget the long felt want, the narrow squeak, the tight squeeze and the duck's arse?
When I was rehearsing The Winter's Tale and we gathered in the Members' Bar to talk of things Shakespearean, our conversation was frequently drowned out by the cast of Fred and Madge in fits of uncontrolled laughter. You felt in production that the cast were having a marvellous time and their pleasure was infectious. It's not Orton's greatest play, but thank you, John and cast, for a fun night out.
P.S. I don't know if the audience realised it, but Mrs Gerald Legge, described in the programme glossary as a 1950s society hostess, is, of course, none other than Raine Spencer, stepmother of Diana, Princess of Wales.