The Mirror Never Lies
The Cockpit Theatre
18th November 2016
It was a delight to see this fascinating and lush new musical take its next steps forward into the big wide world of the real theatre in a workshop production at Marylebone’s enterprising new writing hub, The Cockpit. Having seen an earlier manifestation of it last year in a rehearsed reading at RADA Studios, this was an experience I did not want to miss. The wonderful story (originally a novel by Barbara Pym, here reshaped for the stage by Joe Giuffre), the strongly drawn, atypical characters, the snappy, witty dialogue, by turns racy, saucy, snobby and just a touch sentimental, and – above all – the terrific score (lyrics by Giuffre and music by Juan Iglesias), have lingered in the memory pleasantly and provocatively, always leaving me wanting more. And more we certainly got.
The writers have given the work a thorough shake-down since the reading. A new cast has been brought in, not that there was anything wrong with the company we saw in Bloomsbury, but new people always help to provide freshness in reinterpreting the story, and the development process is all about finding new interpretations. And the score has been entrusted to the more than capable hands of the sensitive and immensely talented Joe Finlay. So, the work is beginning to sound like a real show. How marvellous.
For staging, we got a few well-chosen projections, and a handful of chairs, with a smattering of props and smart costume choices: the capacious space was well used. No director is credited in the programme, so I’m assuming this was all the work of the authors. In a way, this is a good thing, but on the other hand, maybe their baby is big enough to be handed over to some thoughtful, caring dramaturg of a director who can help make the transformation of this clever, intelligent theatrical ‘realisation’ of Pym’s narrative into a truly dramatic event. As things are, much of the book remains schematic and literary, rather than organically of the theatre. An opening filmed ‘montage’ seems to suggest the work lacks a suitable ‘opening number’ to set the scene and write the ground rules of the world it seeks to portray. I’m sure the writers will have noticed that too and will be factoring it into their subsequent development of this work.
Although they barely had 40 hours between them to prepare for this brief 5-performance run, the cast were totally ‘off the book’ and acquitted themselves magnificently well. In the title role of the middle-aged woman with a taste for younger men, Leonora, Fransca Ellis was poised and elegant always, building gradually to a Marschalin-like resignation and surrender of her unsuitably younger lover in one of the show’s great set pieces, the title number that still closes its 90 minutes of playing time. Her first pursuer, the antiques dealer Humphrey (who has morphed from figure of fun to a mildly sinister would-be roue) is now Jon Osbaldeston, and his innocent young assistant – Leonora’s target – the wide-eyed and guileless James (Ryan Frank). Leonora’s best friend, Meg, is Darrie Gardner, and her fairly shallow ‘friends’ (who run away from dinner at the first scent of ‘something better’ elsewhere) are Colin (Spencer O’Brien) and Harold (Greg Keith). The ‘good girl’ who falls for the hapless (one might almost say feckless) James is Phoebe (Jennifer Harraghy): her role is interesting, for although she appears rather weak, she, in fact, points towards change just around the corner.
These are the 50s, and the age of glamorous trans-Atlantic ocean liners is still with us, but not for long. Pym is a social critic at heart, and her cool detachment introduces real menace with the self-seeking revolutionary spirit of Ned (another part for O’Brien); he was played soft and subtle in Bloomsbury, but here takes on much more of a rockabilly beatnik air, which, although somewhat at odds with his job as an academic, nonetheless is an interesting experiment: perhaps his job might change into something more ‘hip’, maybe something to do with the movies, or even television, or indeed the music industry. As things are, he seduces James on the Atlantic crossing – almost as a way of passing the time, or ‘because it was there’ – and then has fun twisting him around his little finger in the way that you wish Phoebe would, but never seems able to.
This causes Leonora some annoyance, but hardly more than that. Her pride is hurt more than anything, and that is not something a theatre audience finds it terribly hard to care about. Meanwhile, Ned seems to be waving a big placard saying, ‘The Sixties Are Coming!’, and alerting us to the fact that the days of the rule of the Leonoras of the world are limited. Mary Quant and Marianne Faithfull will have little use for her. But the revolutionaries – occasionally smoking the odd joint – have their work cut out for themselves, when so much of the energy of the story goes ‘underground’: ‘The Stranger’ (another part for Keith), who appears as a late visitor in the shop, seems only to perpetuate the status quo. Pym’s message seems unoptimistic.
So, immediate parallels are suggested with Pal Joey, another story of implausible and impractical liaisons by those of different generations and social classes (Leonora is a lady with money and leisure; James must work in a shop). As with that show, it is only possible to ‘warm’ to the characters (and we have to take their side one way or another) if they can charm us. At present, the songs do that aplenty. The script, on the other hand, is still working as if it were a novel, and it needs to sing like a play. Time to take a breath, sit back, and call a really exciting dramatur-director to plot the next move!