Harry's Home & The Last Red
Theatre at Baddow
The Reading Rooms, Great Baddow
Friday 5th April 2013
Theatre at Baddow's resourceful extension into the "Studio" space of the Reading Rooms hosted an exploration of new writing this weekend, with a duo of one-act premieres.
First up was Harry's Home by Hannah Puddefoot, a piece following the effects of an Alzheimer's diagnosis on a grandfather and his family. Harry was affectingly played by Bob Ryall in a studied performance. Memories fading and frustrations mounting, we saw glimpses of his early degeneration through his self-centred family members and the generous understanding of his carer, Rob (Chris Piper). He is brought home by daughter Theresa, played by Sally Ransom, a genuinely well-meaning but selfish woman whose condescension goads her father into biting back. Also at home are adult grandchildren Laurie (Sarah Bell) and Keith (Roger Saddington), whose aloofness towards their grandfather gradually grows throughout into a protective affection. Performances were entertaining and generally well portrayed, but all would have benefited from a faster uptake on their cues to make for a slicker feel to the piece.
There seemed a character too many and, with an attempt at a fragment of storyline for each of them, just too much going on to do full justice to the central story of Harry's decline or the wider issue of Alzheimer's disease. That said, director Helen Quigley did a worthy job to bring out the variation of effects of Harry's homecoming on the family, and managed to stage some of the difficult scenes in the small space to good effect. Perhaps centralising the armchair rather than the far less consequential sofa would have framed Harry better and saved his slightly awkward turn towards the audience, but the use of lighting towards the end was effective considering the small performance space.
After the interval and a quick change of scene, Daniel Segeth's play about a former republican guerrilla in the Spanish Civil war takes the stage. Part nostalgic memoir, part patriotic history lesson, this annual family ritual between Emilio and his daughters Eve and Penny is developed beyond a lecture to a touching recollection of previously hidden details in the past of this interesting man. Mike Nower's interpretation of Emilio is a triumph, not just of memory in this very wordy role, but of characterisation in a careful and thorough performance. He was ably accompanied by Laura Hill and Ruth Cramphorn as his daughters - natural and relaxed, both actresses provided solid and generous support, remaining engaged throughout and never detracting from the central performance.
Staged very simply, the set was carefully arranged to fit the studio space without looking cramped, and by setting the table to the far side some purpose was sought for the few moves that were interspersed throughout the naturally static piece. Emilio didn't come across as quite old enough to fit with the dates of the story compared to the modern setting (he would have to be in his 90s?). This is no critisism of the casting choice, but had the directors sought to make the character more frail, breathless, perhaps even wheelchair bound, it would give more purpose to the daughters' moves to comfort and assist him, and more reason for them to take over sections of the familiar story. These are small details however, as the story was compelling and well researched, directed and performed with skill and a clear passion. The narrative arc would suit development into a full length version, that could use this script as narration and build upon some of the key episodes in Emilio's life, introducing the characters alluded to in his memories.
Overall this was a highly entertaining night from TAB, the first time I have experienced their Studio setting. As long as they remember to ensure that the space is the only compromise, not the quality of production, this should be a very valuable addition to their portfolio of work that could allow them to branch away from the safety of naturalistic pieces and try out something completely different. Congratulations to this enterprising group for trying something new, and I look forward to seeing how this venture continues to develop.