So Long Life

by Peter Nichols

Directed by Pat Grosse

January 11th - 18th, 2003

The Tower Theatre performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury

Photography by Gemma Mount

Cast List

Alice : Ann Rooney
Greg : Ian Hoare
Jill : Harriet Watson
Wendy : Annie Connell
Imogen : Linda Stewart-Birch
Mark : Peter Miller


Production Team

Director : Pat Grosse
Set and Costume Design : Lea Tunesi
Lighting Design : Andy Peregrine
Sound Design : Simon Humphries

Stage Manager : Lesley Scarth
ASM : Claire Rice
Lighting Operator : Matthew Fay
Sound operator : Simon Kane
Construction manager : Keith Syrett
Construction : Terry Baker-Self, Alan Root, Robert Myer, Margaret Ley, Karen Fairbairn

In-house review by Richard Pedersen

There's an odd symmetry to the fact that the first play in which I appeared on the Tower stage was Peter Nichols' The National Health in 1989, and the last production on that stage which I have the honour of reviewing is the author's newest play So Long Life. More symmetry still in that The National Health featured Pat Grosse in the role of the matron and So Long Life is her final production in this theatre.

It was a most entertaining evening, a well-crafted production of a clever play by one of Britain's most reputable playwrights - what more could we want in these final days before the grand farewell? To summarise the plot for those who missed the production, all I need to say is that it centred on Alice Usher's 85th birthday celebration (if that is the right word) at her son's house in Bristol. During the course of the remarkably short play we learned a great deal about Alice's past and her relationships with her family; daughter Wendy, son Greg, daughter in-law Jill and granddaughters Imogen and Barbara.

Ann Rooney was an absolute star as Alice, dominating the centre stage from the moment of her first entrance. Her centrally-placed armchair and footstool were like a throne from where she queened it until the final moments of the play. The lighting was cleverly plotted to distinguish Alice's waking moments from her dreams and sub-conscious.

We soon became aware that that family around her were taking advantage of her constant forays into the Land of Nod to determine what they should do with her in her dotage. But she was a wily old bird and had a better idea than they thought of what was going on. The comic high-point had to be when poor Alice broke wind - the audience was in fits of laughter. This was counterpointed by a moving death scene; her life flashed before her but nobody else on stage noticed.

As Alice's daughter Wendy, Annie Connell gave us a brisk interpretation of a high-powered media personality, the star of "Wendy Usher Tonight". A clever woman whom it was difficult to warm to, Wendy dominated the room when she was in it, and it was easy to see how she cowed her employees and made too many enemies. I nevertheless thought that Annie Connell gave an almost too masculine interpretation of the character. I feel that the brown trouser suit was maybe a mistake as a costume, and that she would have better attired in something a bit more floaty. After all, this is a woman of 60 who can still attract toy boys.

Her current paramour was 25-year old Mark, competently played by Peter Miller. I thought that the playwright got a bit lost with this character, creating a whole history for him (soldier in Northern Ireland, heroin addict - I forget the rest) without giving the actor really enough to go on in terms of plot and lines. I fear that the whole episode of escaping the police while trying to score at the Marquess of Granby seemed to teeter on the edge of the ludicrous.

Wendy's daughter Imogen was believably portrayed by Linda Stewart-Birch, although once again I wished she had been given a bit more to play with. She was clever, like her mother, but, one sensed, ultimately unhappy, taking solace in occasional incestuous flings with her uncle Greg.

Greg Usher, prize-winning architect, and Jill his social worker second wife were well-portrayed by Ian Hoare and Harriet Watson respectively, although neither particularly engendered the audience's sympathy. The figure of the unseen first wife, Christine, loomed strong in the marriage, either in Alice's constant references, or else in the home movie videotape prepared by Mark. We learned nothing of the break-up nor indeed why all his family had moved away from Britain. Was it significant, or was it just the playwright simplifying the action on stage?

The set, designed by Lea Tunesi was stark with strong use of primary colours. It was intentionally nonrealistic, with a minimum of furniture and an absence of walls. Only the single door was prominent and I felt that this might have been better placed slightly off centre. I did have difficulty in imagining the look and the location of the room from the set we were given, and I thought that the two counterpoised settees looked remarkably uncomfortable. Lea Tunesi was also responsible for the costuming which was generally effective, with the possible exception of the brown trouser suit.

The lighting plot looked rather complex so all credit must go to the designer and the operator. It took some getting used to the fact that a change of lighting signalled a change of Alice's consciousness, but once we'd grasped that point, things became clearer.

Given more time I might have waxed more lyrically about this play. Take it from me that this was a super show which I and the rest of the last-night audience thoroughly enjoyed.