by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall
April 20th - 27th, 2002
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
The Bride's Family
The Groom's Family
Friends of Arthur's
In-house review by Richard Pedersen
Richard Pedersen was to have been a Witch and other sundry characters in Macbeth, but was stricken with health problems. He is well on the way to recovery and looking forward to continuing his 13-year-long playgoing record at the Tower.
Not too many years ago, my mother surprised me with the revelation that I had a great uncle of whom I had not heard before. When asked why he had not figured at family gatherings, my mother replied "Oh well, he was living with a woman and they never married so your grandfather wouldn't have him in the house". I was immediately reminded of this when watching Noreen Spall's delightful production of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's play Celebration, and being Yorkshire-born and Yorkshire-bred I felt an instant rapport.
What an odd little play this is! For those of you unlucky enough not to have seen it I should explain that the play is basically two one-act plays joined in the middle. In Act I respective families prepare for the imminent wedding of Bernard Fuller and Christine Lucas, setting out the tables for the reception in the upper room of a pub. In Act II the same people gather six months later after the funeral of great uncle Arthur Broadbent and a few home truths are told. Maybe not the stuff of great drama, more akin to soap opera than anything else, but nonetheless very entertaining and amusing to watch.
In a way I almost want to review the two halves separately, because they were so disparate, but I shall try and avoid that temptation. The sheer business of the first half was what impressed me the most, and the way in which Noreen Spall had choreographed her huge cast. Fourteen people on stage, all being busy while carrying on a host of different conversations - it was wonderful just to watch. In the space of an hour the cast had transformed a dingy room with three trestle tables into a room fit for a wedding banquet.
Despite the size of the cast, some lovely characterisations and eccentricities shone through. Strangely enough this didn't apply to the younger male members of the cast whose parts, I felt, were all a bit lacklustre. The authors reserved their best lines for the older women who very much dominated the proceedings and stole the show - Sheila Burbidge as Rhoda Lucas, Jill Batty as Lillian Howes, Denyse Macpherson as Edna Fuller, Ann Rooney as Alice Fuller and Sara Randall in Act II as the scarlet woman May Beckett.
Also looming through the first Act was Jim Spall as Arthur ("Everybody knows me") Broadbent. Pint glass permanently in hand, he seemed the eternal pub bore - but you couldn't help but like him. Only later on in the play did I realise the level of pathos here, because although he was invited to the wedding, his "long-time companion" was definitely persona non grata.
Then he was dead and the Lucas family closed ranks to bury him as they thought fit. They hadn't thought to invite Mrs Beckett, a side of Uncle Arthur's life that they chose to ignore, but she turned up at the funeral nonetheless. Sara Randall gave us a bravura performance as May Beckett, pointedly wearing a green coat and cream outfit in contrast to the funereal black of the others, and with a shock of ginger hair that outdid Rita Fairclough's coiffure.
There were some extremely touching moments in the second Act which contrasted very well with the hustle and bustle of the first. Old softy that I am, must admit to getting a bit of a lump in my throat when firstly Rhoda presented May with Arthur's photograph (and well done props for acquiring such a photograph of a younger Jim Spall), and then when May, despite all the calumnies against her, told Irene and Stan that they could take over her house and therefore get married.
In the space available I can't go into great detail about all the performances but the actors were all well cast and made the most of sometimes limited roles. I must commend new member Nadine Allexant for a brilliant debut performance as Irene, while Vanessa Westing as Margo and Guy Saunders as Frank Broadbent gave us extremely amusing comic cameos. If I were to quibble, I would say that lines on this first-night performance were a little shaky in parts - there was some noticeable jumping-in ahead of time and in other places a slackness in the cue-bite, but I'm sure that this will have improved over the week.
While props generally were very well-organised (plates, knives, glasses, table decorations etc.) I felt that more thought could have gone into Jim Spall's pint. It was his constant prop and yet he appeared to be drinking lager - in Yorkshire, in 1959? Something more resembling bitter would have been far more in keeping. Costumes, too, in the capable hands of the director herself, were generally spot-on for period and location. I was not convinced, however, that Stephen Davies, as Sergeant Major Tommy Lodge, would have been in uniform when not on duty. But then, I'm sure readers old enough to remember National Service will put me right on this.
Wendy Parry's set was functional, and managed an air of drabness without being uninteresting. The change between the two Acts was cleverly managed.
All-in-all this was a heart-warming play which sent me home dreaming nostalgically of Yorkshire puddings (each course, just as I remember them).