This is a one woman show performed by the great South African actress Janet Suzman. Lasting just over 2 hours it is a tour de force, telling the compelling and poignant story of an elderly Jewish woman looking back over her long life. It spans much of the 20th century, from a hand to mouth childhood in a Ukrainian village up to a comparatively affluent retirement divided between Florida and Israel. Encompassing Stalinist oppression, the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazis, escape to Palestine on board the infamous SS ‘Exodus’, and then resettlement in America, she tells of her family, lovers, husbands, children and grandchildren. It is a story punctuated by loss and grief, as well as love and redemption.
If the aim of theatre is to educate then this play certainly achieves that, as we learn so much listening to this character’s story. But that’s not to say that this is a dry didactic piece. It is entertaining too, drawing us in with the wonderfully engaging power of the story. Written by the award-winning American playwright Martin Sherman the writing is never dull, often moving and sometimes amusing, a narrative that carries the audience along on the colourful and eventful journey through Rose’s life.
As for Janet Suzman’s performance it is an impressive feat for any actor, never mind someone of her age, to perform a monologue of this length and power with such apparent ease and charisma. We were quite simply blown away by it, and it won a richly deserved standing ovation.
A mention should also be made of the director Richard Beecham, as well as the design, lighting and sound team (Simon Kenny, Chris Davey and Adrienne Quartly), whose various contributions combined to make this into a memorable piece of theatre.
This play is an old favourite that you may well have seen before, either on stage or on screen. So that raises certain expectations – if it’s going to be a classic production then it needs to do a lot more than just tick the boxes. Richard Fitch’s production at Theatr Clwyd certainly does just that. Yes it has the lavish period sets, and yes it has the authentically recreated Victorian costumes, but it also has a whole lot more to offer.
From the moment that Algy (James Backway) bounds onto the stage the audience is bowled along by the infectious energy of this company of 8 talented actors. No opportunity for comedy is lost as Algy and his more conventional friend Jack (Matt Jessup) engage in a verbal sparring match that only escalates when the imperious Lady Bracknell arrives with wonderfully quivering feathers in her array of impressive hats (Hilary Maclean), accompanied by her deceptively dutiful daughter Gwendolen (Emma Denly). Many of the lines are so familiar that we are almost waiting for them to be delivered, but that doesn’t make them any less funny.
And then suddenly the scenery is swept away before our eyes, and we are transported from a stuffy London townhouse to a flower-filled country garden under a blue summer’s sky. The use of a soaring Strauss waltz to accompany this scene change is inspired, and the fast pace continues as we are introduced to winsome young Cecily (Robyn Cara), her eccentric governess Miss Prism (Melanie Walters) and the pompous Reverend Chasuble (Darren Lawrence). The plot thickens with the unexpected arrivals of Algy, Jack and Gwendolen in quick succession. However the highlight of Act 2 is the vitriolic exchange of pleasantries between Cecily and Gwendolen as they mistakenly believe themselves to be engaged to the same man. A special mention should also go to Nick Harris playing contrasting butlers Lane and Merryman for creating some truly hilarious comic moments.
Before we know it the two sets of young lovers are indoors again as the last Act unfolds. Soon the mystery of Jack’s foundling origins is explained when Lady Bracknell pitches up and Miss Prism’s guilty secret is finally revealed. A happy ending is on the cards for almost everyone, with not just two but three happy couples on stage, as well as Algy and Jack turning out to be long lost brothers.
This production is a joy, richly deserving a 4 star rating, and definitely a feather in the cap of upcoming director Richard Fitch and Theatr Clwyd.
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