This is a lovely, warm-hearted piece; delicately written and cleverly structured by Matt Hartley; sensitively played by two hugely engaging actors; and full of deep, touching resonances for anyone who living a rural life.
Watching the play is a bit like the process of moving into a village. You begin by picking up the script’s busy tittle-tattle about people you don’t yet know and issues you can’t quite grasp (who’s marrying who and what are they doing up at the big house) but are gradually drawn into the life and soul of the community as the stories slip into place.
Elsie is an off-comer too…just arrived up from London to marry her country beau. And over the following two hours we shadow the next 60 years of her village life. Beatrice Curnew (Ludlow born and bred) plays Elsie through-out, gently aging with posture and gesture, whilst Nathalie Barclay adeptly portrays four of the bright young women she befriends. Both actors are superb, performing inches away from the assembled audience with impeccable focus, as the story unfolds in four well-drawn scenes, set decades apart.
We are in the village hall, seated at tables to share the event. A new-fangled television is due to arrive so everyone can watch The Coronation. “The Queen is going to be in room with us”, says new mum Dorothy, who has come to help Elsie string up the bunting around us. “What a time to be born!” Though there is still a heaviness of post-war sadness to be detected in the air.
Elsie is also expecting and we eavesdrop as she tells her ‘bump’ how she met her man and her hopes for the future. Slowly we all settle into her community.
Then Abba appear on the stereogram and it’s no longer 1953. It’s the eve of the 1979 General Election and the hall is to be the polling station. But the village is much more excited about a 5-year-old’s birthday party. The balloons are for him, not Margaret Thatcher. Nathalie now plays Dorothy’s 26-year-old baby Marion, who is vaguely punkish and unhappy in London. The leaving of a generation for the Big City to escape the strangulation of village life is a familiar theme…as indeed are all the scenarios in the play. But that is what makes it so pertinent to rural audiences. Marion is determined not to return with her tail between her legs but, as she helps fill the balloons with helium, she confesses to the ‘stretch’ she is feeling between her two lives. “You don’t have to go far to learn a lot”, advises Elsie.
In 1998 Elsie is mourning her husband who has uttered an expletive about David Beckham at ‘Argentina ’98’ and popped his clogs. Bright and perky Scarlett bounces into the hall in work-out lycra. She’s moved into the big house and hasn’t the faintest idea how to light her AGA. She also needs chairs for the party…the same chairs Elsie is laying out for the wake. And here is the very heart of the play.….and here the author starts playing with time, for half a century on, Scarlett is doing just what Elsie did after the war. What starts off as a sharp clash of cultures, generations and demands, evolves into a big hug as the author has the relationship swing from ‘frosty’ to ‘bosom’ in 25 minutes. Suddenly I began to feel as if I’d lived in their village all my life.
And now it’s 2016 and Elsie is about to have her 90th birthday. Suffering from Arthritis and Alzheimer’s, she is dependent on young Katie to care for her. Her momentary forgetfulness gives Hartley some excellent opportunities to play with the audience’s own memories. It is here he introduces the cruellest rural cut of all. But Elsie has an unexpected resolution.
It’s an exceptionally authentic and intelligent evening that creeps up on you and fills you with the warmth of country living, whilst also alighting on the stark realities of the march of time. And at the end, to seal Pentabus’s celebration of village life, we all sing happy birthday and scoff Elsie’s cake.
http://www.pentabus.co.uk for details