I doff my jauntily angled trilby to Peter Doran and his team at The Torch for delivering a massively engaging evening that required acting , comedy and emotion, live theatre and video projections and, yes, singing.
The result was an encounter that in term of sheer pleasure was all too brief. This show is not some easy nostalgia trip playing on our familiarity with the great David Lean film with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. While we have the trains that pass in the night relationship between respectable suburban housewife Laura and idealistic GP Alec , this production is far more than a stage version of one of cinema’s great romances.
Homage is of course paid to the 1945 film with not only plenty of black and white video of trains and stations to convey the era but the whole show is presented as being in a cinema where we, the audience, are joined by the two “lovers”, as they settle in for a movie. This, of course, fits in with the story as Laura and Alec go to the cinema on their weekly brief encounters.
The Torch pulls out all the stops in getting us in the mood with the theatre’s front of house transformed into the golden age of steam and the silver screen, with luggage, movie posters, usherettes in period cinema staff costume and plenty of plush red fabric. Just as Laura and Alec take their seats, one of the ushers sings “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” before the curtains open and the “movie” begins and Sean Crowley’s designs come to life.
The film was based on Noel Coward’s one-act play, Still Life, and this melding of the film and play is presented in an at first surprising but quickly engaging fusion of “conventional” theatre with clever use of video (such as the characters performing in front of a screen showing film sequences, of say a train carriage or Laura’s home, and then walking into the screen and niftily then being in the video) and live song and music. We never see Alec’s home life with Madeline and the two sons but thanks to the magic of cinema we have Laura’s perfect children Bobby and Margaret on-screen talking to mummy.
Laura Penneycard and Matt Wilman
The film has the element of class contrast between the terribly English middle class Laura and Alec with the working class couples but here it seems far more prominent. We have plenty of laughs from Charlotte Workman as the put upon waitress Beryl who is kept in her place with silly, snobby behaviour from her boss, refreshment room manageress Myrtle Bagot played by Katherine Toy. Their own romance or at least slap and tickle interests are played by Liam Tobin and Oliver Wood. Liam also plays Laura’s husband but it is as Myrtle’s saucy suitor that he comes into his own and the pair have real comic chemistry.
These versatile actors also play the musicians and singers through the show so both Myrtle and Beryl play the piano that cleverly forms the counter of the station buffet, they also play a range of other instruments as songs intersperse the action. The “sensible human beings” Laura and Alec also perform Noel Coward songs (several of which I did not know are his compositions), but of course in a very genteel manner. Those songs and ditties include, for example, Beryl singing “Mad About the Boy” as a torch song singer and Meryl telling us “I Am No Good At Love”. I particularly enjoyed “A Room with a View”. And thanks musical director James Williams for ensuring there is just enough of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number 2 for we aficionados.
Another Coward-penned song accompanies one of the moments where passion threatens to swamp their self-control such as the boating lake scene when Laura and Alec take off their wet clothes. As Alec struggles not to over-step propriety Go Slow Johnny is beautifully sung. As the pair is crushed between their yearning for one another and their sense of respectability and moral duty the moments of uncontrollable, well, passion I suppose are portrayed as video footage of huge waves which they mime as sweeping over them. Interestingly, at the end of the evening, all of the characters are buffeted by this wave of romance, not only our honour-bound lovers who have decided to do the right thing.
Laura Penneycard is perfectly upstanding as Laura with a clipped and terribly posh English voice, acting the role with poise and expressing that inner pain and frustrated passion that is only released in another of the songs with an almost paradise island dream sequence where she slinks around in a dance. Matt Wilman doesn’t really get the chance to let himself go as doctor Alec Harvey and doesn’t get beyond taking his jacket off and the couple’s tango at a tea dance was as raunchy as it gets. He is the perfect gentleman, charming and suave although he looks maybe a bit too good-looking to say no to! He is also very proper and restrained, even acknowledging he at least will be going off to a new life in Africa while poor old Laura is stuck with the “same old” with her dreary home life.
Completing the ensemble of actors and on-stage musicians were Joseph Tweedale, Lloyd Grayshon and Jerome Davies. The ensemble take all the other funny or ridiculous characters such as the gossip Dolly, Mrs Rowlandson and Mary Norton (gloriously played particularly in the scene where they meet the champagne sipping couple) and fellow- doctor Stephen Lynn who comes back just a little too early to the flat he lets Alec use and discovers what his colleague is up to.
Katherine Toy and Charlotte Workman
In all, the combination of the story we all know and love from the film and additional material from the play, written 10 years earlier, the incorporation of well-known and lesser-known Coward songs, the weaving of live action and film sequences, works splendidly. There are some gimmicks that I could have lived without, such as Alec and Laura swinging from chandeliers, as their romance really did take off, but the audience loved it, bursting into applause. But it all relies on the cast, stage crew and the technical team to bring it all together with such panache.
You will leave The Torch with some tunes in your head, having enjoyed lots of laughs and, judging by the young lady next to me, maybe even a tear in your eye. Or was it a bit of grit? Is there a doctor in the house?
By the way, you did remember it was Milford Junction where the couple first meet?
Torch Theatre, Milford Haven, Until October 24.