Championing new work from under-represented voices is surely now standard for all right-thinking theatre makers. Perhaps also a key responsibility is the task of revisiting under-represented work from the past. Coastal weekly rep company Frinton Summer Theatre and The Park, who co-produce here, deserve recognition therefore for this revival of Lesley Storm’s work. Black Chiffon, written in 1949, was a hit by any measure, easily equal to the work of her male contemporaries – 400 West End performances, no less, before a transfer to Broadway.
Its themes of broken family relationships still feel fresh and relevant in 2019, even if this production, with its drawing room set, upper middle-class restraint and treatment of women’s mental health, feels transported from a bygone era. There is, of course, no reason to radically re-invent art for the sake of it, but there feels a case for something bolder, with more of a sense of urgency. 70 years’ worth of shifts in gender politics, medicine and theatrical taste are left largely ignored by director Clive Brill.
There’s still plenty to enjoy though. The whole enterprise is driven by Abigail Cruttenden’s incredibly strong central performance as troubled matriarch Alicia. Without her talents, the dated clipped dialogue might be more of an effort to navigate through. She is matched blow by blow by Ian Kelly whose portrayal of emotionally clueless husband Robert initially wins incredulous laughter, then shock with its casually cruelty before, ultimately, just feeling incredibly sad.
Nicholas Murchie as Dr Hawkins is calmly authoritative as an investigating outsider reminiscent of J.B. Priestley’s Inspector Goole. Jack Studden (Roy) and Eva Feiler (Thea) skilfully capture the intimacies of grown siblings trapped between their own lives and warring parents. Special mention ought to go to Yvonne Newman who, despite I fear some slightly lazy direction, stays just the right side of caricature as maid Nannie. Her thin role seems to be mainly fretting about what’s in the family larder. Finally, as bride-to-be Louise, Jemima Watling is superbly bright eyed and full of hope. A sweet note in the programme tells us her grandmother played the same role back in 1950, adding more of a sense of time travel to proceedings.
The action is hardly pacey. Act One is dominated by thinly disguised therapy sessions as Dr Hawkins pokes around seeking to medicalise Alicia’s choices – a move to which she initially mounts a spirited defence. This scene no doubt felt radical in the days when Freudian psychobabble was rarely aired in public. Now, it feels familiar well-trodden ground that, it must be said, has been largely disproved by medical advances in any case. Things get more intense, but no quicker, after the interval when truths land and big decisions get made for the greater good. Over tea, naturally.
Fans of period fashion will love the work of costume designer Neil Gordon. There are a couple of divine dresses for Ms Cruttenden in particular. His menswear choices are more stylish than the soulless monochrome suits we might have expected too. The aforementioned set will delight those with an eye for detail. Designer Beth Colley has presumably made numerous friends at local antique shops. The intimate Park 90 feels cramped though and there are some challenging sight lines. It is worth being first in the line to reduce the risk of a poor seat.
If you’re interested in re-discovering neglected women’s writing – and quite frankly, you ought to be – Black Chiffon is a very good place to start. Be warned though, despite strong work from the cast and creatives, this production never quite reaches beyond worthy history lesson.
Written by: Lesley Storm
Directed by: Clive Brill
Set deigned by: Beth Colley
Produced by: Frinton Summer Theatre in association with Park Theatre
Playing until: 12 October 2019
Booking link: https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/black-chiffon