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Review: Viva’s production of ‘Separate Tables’ at Soham Methodist Hall 31st January – 2nd February 2019

Separate Tables is the name of two one-act plays by Terence Rattigan performed together and both taking place in the Beauregard Private Hotel, Bournemouth. The first half focuses on the troubled relationship between a disgraced Labour politician and his ex-wife. The second half is set about eighteen months after the events of the previous play, and deals with the touching friendship between a repressed spinster and a kindly but bogus man posing as an upper-class retired army officer, Major Pollock. The secondary characters – permanent residents, the hotel’s manager, and members of the staff appear in both plays. It’s about people who are driven by loneliness into a state of desperation.

Seated in the Beauregard Hotel (Soham Methodist Church Hall) we watch, like flies on the wall, as the drama unfolds before us. When you arrive for a performance and you are greeted by a beautifully uniformed (but surly) hotel waitress intent on remaining in character even to the point of disposing of your Starbucks latte cup in the hotel bin, you know you are in for an immersive experience. After all, its a play directed by Mary Barnes, always creative and with a great knack for drawing out the very best performances from a cast. Sarah Shorney was producer as well as appearing in the show herself.

Jenny Tayler-Surridge shone as Anne Shankland, the fading beauty, come back to haunt her former husband, John Malcolm (Rob Barton). Barton was brooding and very convincing as the “live, roaring savage from the slums of Hull”. Like Elyot and Amanda in Coward’s Private Lives, this pair can’t live with or without each other. The chemistry between these two actors was electric and Anne’s plummet to the ground as she was attacked, yet again by Malcolm, beautifully timed on the night I saw it.

What a great play this is, often staged with the two main characters in each half played by the same actors, but not in this production; Viva clearly has enough good actors to draw from for us to enjoy individual and dedicated portrayals. This production had the ring of good character work and clever direction. There were no weak links.

As some of the permanent guests at the hotel, Danielle Swanson as Jean and Scott Robertson as Charles made a convincingly relaxed (and in love) couple in Act I. There were some nice moments as the excitable Jean danced around her studying doctor-to-be. With the Audience set on two sides of the central stage like an antiphonal choir, keeping things moving is vital, making sure the audience aren’t looking at the back of your head too long. Nicely done and engaging, Swanson was suitably girlish and entertaining.

Rattigan creates a rich gallery of minor characters, here excellently embodied by David Tickner as a sad Chekhovian schoolmaster, Anthea Kenna as a lonely widow and Kate Nolan as the hotel’s deliciously devious domineering dragon, Mrs Railton-Bell. Nolan lead the second act residents’ meeting with relish and skill.

The casting was superb. When you look at who was in the 1958 film, David Niven was Major Pollock and here we have silver fox, Rowan Maulder, suitably suave but convincingly bad at remembering his own fabricated history and mixing his Greek and Latin. Rob Barton also undeniably has a bit of that Burt Lancaster Swagger!

As Sibyl Railton-Bell, Kerry Hibbert’s beautifully innocent demeanour, full of expression created the part of down-trodden daughter even before she opened her mouth. This made her shocked stupor on learning of the Major’s deception even more effective.

For me, the most poignant moment came in the 2nd half from Chloe Grimes, cheerfully facing a life without hope as Miss Cooper, the hotel manageress. No surprises there if you saw her powerful performance as Mrs. Beech in Viva’s November 2018 production of Good Night Mister Tom. Wendy Hiller won an Oscar (best supporting actress) for her part in 1958. And yes, it’s a role that requires a good anchor woman. This part very much links the two halves and requires an actress of strong composure and we were not disappointed.

As a ‘serious’ piece of drama we were treated to some decent laughs too; notably from the three serving maids (Sarah Shorney, Kate Weekes and Julie Kowalczyk) who had some great Julie Walters opportunities which they used to the full ; Mr Fowler’s (David Tickner) face at the too early removal of his dinner by said maids was classic; and the rustic Miss Meacham played by Kirsten Martin was pointed and amusing.

This was a thought-provoking and moving production complimented by good costumes (Vicki Jellyman), props (Gail Baker and Rob Barton), period furniture and an unobtrusive backstage crew who, one imagines, also had to produce all the hotel meals for the many dining scenes! Minimal lighting and the audience forming the boundary of the stage added to the overall success and intimacy of the piece. Well done to the cast and crew and also to Soham Methodist Church for hosting this in their 150th Anniversary Year.

BH

(Photos courtesy of Mike Rouse)

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