Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Clever passage through the ages


Highbury Theatre Centre, Sutton Coldfield


Kate Atkinson stages her clever play both in the present day and in 1865, deftly flitting between the two eras with a story guaranteed to keep its audience totally absorbed. Aided and abetted by director Sheila Knapman and an excellent company, she sees her challenging task completed with aplomb in this fast-moving studio production.

Despite its pace, it is about 10.30 pm when it finishes – but this came as a complete surprise to me and, I am sure, to many members of the first-night audience who had watched it speed by with no idea that it had kept us for three hours.

The story develops after two sisters and a friend have started clearing out a house that had been occupied by an elderly woman – but this is a circumstance that is readily forgotten once the real action gets under way. When it does, we find ourselves embroiled in modern family tensions and fleeting love affairs, and the unkindnesses inflicted on servants 150 years ago. It is a mixture that is deftly handled and which compels our attention.

Elizabeth (Alison Cahill) is the house buyer – a woman whose bubbling personality cannot keep pace with the pressures of personal relationships and the way in which she is let down. Her sharp-tongued sister Kitty (Judith Woodfield) is not exactly supportive and their friend Susie (Marion Pritchett) is helpfully described as being a scientist as well as a lesbian. In the scenes from the past, Marion is delightfully transformed into Gertie, the solemn-faced and panicky housemaid.

Gwen Evans is Ina, the unhappy matriarchal figure who knows absolutely everything, and Neil Weedon – one of five members of the company playing two roles set in different eras – is the photographer who becomes involved in the family love life. Thomas Castledine, as the present-day Callum, finds himself similarly engaged in the course of false love – but he also shines as a declamatory clergyman of long ago.


Among all these excellent characterisations there is another – one which, for me, stands out quite remarkably, despite the powerful competition. We first see Rachel Homer in a modern setting – but she is a ghost from the past, intermittently making her way slowly across the back of the stage, unobserved by family members. She does not speak, but she holds the attention – and when blackness comes at the end of one of the many scenes, she takes her leave without a suggestion of increasing her unhurried pace. She stays completely in character. Excellent.

Then, after the interval, she does speak – riveting our attention with her words, her eyes, her facial expressions and the Scots accent in which, like the other members of the company, she was so successfully coached by Jeanette Agnew.

Special praise, too, for Alison Cahill and Neil Weedon, in his photographer mode, for remaining so superbly still for such a long time when they were not part of the immediate action. It is as important not to be a distraction at such times as it is to hit the ground running when all eyes are on you.

This is a splendid production, a credit to everyone involved, even if some precocious Reader's Digest volumes are on show on the bookshelves in 1865, and even if the camera that didn't want to be fastened to its tripod on the first night eventually went about its business without any noticeable support from magnesium flares. To 24.4.10.

John Slim

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