With apologies to those blog readers who are unable to get to London (and more particularly the Jermyn Street Theatre) before 1st October – I can’t resist writing about the play I saw this evening, The Dover Road by A.A. Milne. It’s absolutely phenomenal, and I am so grateful to Mary for bringing it to my attention.
I’ve written before about the special role that Milne played in my development as a reader, and how much I love almost everything he wrote – novels, stories, essays, poetry, memoir, sketches, and plays – but I never thought I would have the opportunity to see one of his plays on a London stage. Sitting in the tiny underground theatre on Jermyn Street – which seats 70 people, many of whom seemed to be regulars – I kept having moments of happy disbelief that this dream was coming true. And, better yet, with what is possibly my favourite of his plays (the only rival being Mr Pim Passes By). I’d read it many times, and even given a conference paper on it, but seeing The Dover Road actually being acted in front of me – well, I almost had to pinch myself.
A little about the play before I talk about how good this particular production was. The Dover Road features ‘a sort of hotel’, run by the mysterious and witty Mr Latimer, outside which Leonard and Anne find themselves when their car breaks down. They have no choice but to seek shelter, but it is almost immediately obvious that the hotel is unconventional, and that Latimer knows more about them than he should – he knows, for instance, that Leonard has left his wife Eustasia for Anne, and that they are eloping. With impossible charm, Latimer (aided by Dominic and Joseph) imprisons them. His sort-of-hotel, you see, is run to help these sorts of couples get to know each other more closely, before they embark on potentially disastrous second marriages.
Also at the hotel, however, is another couple – one coming to the end of their week of genial imprisonment. Look away if you don’t want spoilers, but I don’t think it negatively impacts the play to know (and is, indeed, somewhat inevitable) that one of this pair is Eustasia herself – and the other is Nicholas, heartily regretting his absconding in the face of Eustasia’s maddening attentiveness. There is a wonderful scene where Nicholas calculates how many times he may have to protest that he really doesn’t want anything else to eat, at the end of meals.
The couples, of course, meet – and masks fall and plans unravel in the face of this encounter, albeit always with Milne’s characteristic wit and brilliant construction of lines. Though there are certainly more poignant moments, the stakes are never quite as high as they would seem in another playwright’s hands. (One has to wonder how intentionally Noel Coward was influenced by The Dover Road when writing Private Lives; the overlaps are considerable.)
And this particular production and performance? I don’t think I have ever seen a better ensemble cast. There is no weak link, and the casting and directing were pretty much flawless (my only tiny caveat is that, while Stefan Bednarczyk was fantastic in the role of the wise, unshockable aid Dominic, also lending his skills on the piano in inspired musical additions to the play, it was somewhat hard to believe that he would be physically threatening towards the taller, younger, and bulkier Leonard).
The play depends upon a great Latimer, as the puppeteer of the whole piece. Milne helps with the fantastic lines he writes, but even with his humour and obvious good intentions, he could seem cruel – but Patrick Ryecart carries the role so smoothly and warmly that you can’t help side with Latimer and fall under his charm. It is up to he and Georgia Maguire, as Anne, to provide the pathos of the play alongside the comedy – and she does this equally brilliantly. A quiet scene where they have breakfast, and Latimer guesses the past that has led her to this present, was far more moving on stage than I had expected from the page. Anne is perhaps the most typical Milne character in The Dover Road – he loved a determined, amusing, slightly vulnerable, female lead – and AAM would have been thrilled by Maguire’s casting.
I could eulogise about everybody in this. Katrina Gibson has all the fun that is deserved in the entertainingly awful persona of Eustasia, particularly in her first glorious appearance. Tom Durant-Pritchard works wonders with the role of Leonard – who can come across as rather unattractive on the page, but is here an appealing, good man pushed beyond his boundaries and vulnerable to foibles. And Durant-Pritchard does more with an outraged side-eye than anybody I’ve ever seen.
But my favourite performance came from a character whom I hadn’t paid that much attention to when reading it: James Sheldon as Nicholas, suffering the attentions of Eustasia, had me choking with laughter. Not being an actor, I don’t know how much the audience affects them, but… well, if you were distracted by the guy roaring with mirth throughout much of the play, and particularly for the first scene in which we meet Nicholas and Eustasia, then that was I. Sheldon’s facial expressions, delivery of lines, and half-formed throwaway words, demonstrated such excellent comic ability that I ended up more or less just laughing at what the character was thinking. So good.
As I say, there were no weak links here. I’m hardly objective, but I think it isn’t a day too soon that a Milne play has been revived. The comedy and the poignancy of The Dover Road were shown in this production beyond anything I could have hoped, and I (for I believe this is what is done in the theatre review world) unquestioningly give it 5 stars.
Now, can I persuade anybody to stage Mr Pim Passes By?