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National Operatic & Dramatic Association London Region
Thank you for, once again, giving me the opportunity to report on your latest production and apologies that I cannot get the complete title at the top of this report without completely re-formatting the document!
The programme was, as always, highly informative and gave a lot of information, parts of which helped the audience in their understanding of the background to the play, which was a story of a small town where most people know everything and can keep secrets because they understand why they are secrets.
It was also a play where the audience had to keep up with the action and the dialogue as it was all relevant to the story, with Act l setting the scene and Act ll following on from the revelation just before the interval.
There was excellent music from 1975 for the beginning of the play as that was where most of the action was set, and then from 1955 because that was mainly the era after the interval. Music adds so much atmosphere to any piece and puts the audience in the mood for what is to come.
The excellent and well thought out set had the right balance between authentic and busy. It was ‘fussy’ with all the paraphernalia of a Five and Dime store in the mid-50s. The half walls worked well because there was nothing on them to detract from the action and it was very important that the audience were focussed on the players in order not to miss any of the dialogue. Entrances were used well and the store room gave another acting area that was authentically equipped with barrels and crates.
Gathering the props for this play must have been a nightmare, but was well worth the effort – one was actually looking at a very convincing piece of social history in mid-1950s small town America.
Lighting and sound, both design and operation were well handled and very appropriate to the action and the setting, particularly the implementation of the flashbacks to the 50s. Flashbacks were convincing with the darkened stage and the working fan. Any of the 70s characters who were on the stage, apart from Juanita, during the flashbacks were suitably still if appropriate.
Costumes were well thought through and reminiscent of the timescales involved, with hairstyles and make up all suitable and appropriate for the characters. The striking red bomber jackets in Act ll helped in the identification of the younger protagonists, without looking out of place in the overall setting. Joe’s make up was particularly convincing.
The casting was excellent and the characters well defined, and the mix of players worked particularly well. Accents, which were not easy considering the geographical setting of the play, were consistent throughout, although they could have benefitted from a bit more volume, but that may have been because we came on the first night. Once one was ‘tuned in’ it was much clearer. The relationship between all the characters was genuine – their feelings obvious and unsophisticated.
Act l served to set the scene in the 70s showing, with the aid of flashbacks, where everyone’s particular life journey had brought them. The story of their youth was well portrayed by Mona, Sissy and Joe in Act l. Act ll, on the other hand, was highly charged with revelations and confessions.
Juanita (Jean Cooper) the very Christian woman who, though somewhat bigoted in her opinions but protective of her husband’s memory, finally had to acknowledge what she knew of her husband’s real personality. A very down to earth figure but highly religious. There was sufficient ‘busyness’ to give depth to the character without losing either the words or the accent.
Mona (Cathy Naylor) was a fantasist, very fragile, often rather fey and living in an unreal world coloured by her experiences on the set of Giant, feeling that she had been ‘chosen’ and convincing herself of the paternity of her son around whom she had built her entire existence. Her asthma seemed to be psychosomatic in Act ll presumably caused by the stress of the lies she had told and the secret surrounding the father of her child. All her feelings in Act ll were visible on her face until she was finally forced to face the truth.
Sissy (Dolleen Howlett) was a flirt and a bit of a sexpot of the day, but whose emotional revelations about her mastectomy, her plastic boobs and the final disintegration of her relationship with Lester kept her grounded and consequently more understanding of Jimmy Dean’s desire to escape the smothering love of his mother, Mona. She displayed a brittleness which served to cover her deepest feelings of failure and inadequacy when her husband left.
The complex character of Joanne was well interpreted by Karen Rogers who seemed to have returned for revenge because she knew the truth about the night on the porch at the ‘Reata’ ranch house, and that the child to whom Mona had given birth was not, in fact, James Dean’s. From her initial entrance I felt there was something unreal about her. Her walk, the way she moved her head and hair, and then how she leaned on the counter in Act ll. Somehow Karen had managed to maintain some slightly masculine traits to overlay her femininity as Joanne.
The reaction from each of them when Joanne reveals who she really was/is was so well delivered to the point of being almost unbelievable.
Young Mona (Sarah Vickers) and young Sissy (Shea Donovan) were exuberant youngsters and delighted with each other on Mona’s return to the town to help improve her health which in Act l could have been real. There was a genuine closeness with Joe due to their singing act and the time they spent together.
Joe (Joshua Sowerbutts) was a troubled young man, persecuted because of his perceived strangeness and his involvement in the singing act with the girls….a forerunner of his decision to change his sex. The rather earthy description of his rape was delivered with both conviction and shame.
Edna Louise (Sophie Gilbert) had led a very simple life running a home and producing children, although she appeared happy with her lot. She was, however, quite astute in her summation of Stella Mae’s life with its lack of children and family. It was very touching how all the others accepted her and how Joanne boosted her confidence by telling her she glowed, a compliment which Edna Louise pathetically accepted.
Stella Mae (Elisa Thomas), although brash and impatient with Edna Louise was not as shallow as she appeared and perhaps that sarcasm and brashness hid a life of disappointment and unhappiness.
The gathering together of all the actors on the stage (from both eras) worked particularly well and the red bomber jackets helped that. The young Mona, Sissy and Joe integrated with the adults Stella Mae and Edna Louise, who managed to transport themselves back to that era emotionally, so fitting with the youth and buoyancy of the other three – the positioning helped enormously too.
This was ensemble playing at its best. Each finely drawn character impacted greatly on the others, all of them having a secret that had been kept hidden.
My congratulations to you all on another fine achievement in the LADS’ canon