Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • NIGHTINGALE • New End Theatre • 2006


Photo: Jolyon Hinton

One-person shows are notoriously tricky. It is some feat for an actor alone on stage to keep an audience engaged for an hour or so, let alone longer. The common assumption is that only a ‘star’ is capable of such a feat, only a ‘star’ is able to imbue the journey with enough interest and excitement to enthrall. Not so. Sometimes, not even then.

Inevitably, there is usually a plethora of solo shows around at any one time, thrown together by performers whose prime motive is to excite the interest of producers and casting directors. Thus we get one actor giving us the life of some obscure contemporary of Hans Holbein, or another her Jane Austen or Aphra Benn, with a focus that serves the performer (“Gosh, how versatile!”) and not the audience.

But there are also productions such as Nightingale (New End Theatre, Hampstead, until 19 February) written and directed by Lynn Redgrave, with a performance of startling clarity by Caroline John as Mildred Asher.

Redgrave’s piece is the imagining of a life inspired by her maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson. The names are irrelevant. Beatrice. Mildred. She could be anyone’s grandmother or great-grandmother: it is the life lived by many born at the end of the 19th century who lived to see the Beatles and Armstrong’s ‘one small step’.

Redgrave describes Mildred as ‘a seemingly chilly woman who, nonetheless, once lived and breathed and laughed and wept … and then she was gone.’ Times have changed but if you were born in the 1950s or ’60s, these women were still familiar in many families – grey, forbidding and wholly unapproachable, seemingly older than God. Could they ever have laughed as we laugh, loved as we love, felt as we do? Yes and how, but their experiences, ecstatic or tragic or mundane, were sublimated in the name of duty and restraint until their manner in old age revealed little else. The writing and the acting left me with much to ponder about my own grandmothers.

Caroline John and Lynn Redgrave have been friends for over forty years and it shows in the perfect dovetailing of actor and material. John is unsparing in the detail she reveals as Mildred, whether as an innocent, anxious girl in church, a woman disappointed by love or a mother riven with grief at the death of her beloved son in war, never able to feel the same warmth for her “daddy’s girl” actress daughter.

Indeed, what is so remarkable about John’s performance is her ability to be that girl, to be that woman, no matter that John herself is no spring chicken. I have not seen the like since Julie Harris moved from Broadway to the West End in the 1970s as American poet Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst.

It is very rare to find an actor who can play much older or much younger than they are and be entirely believable on stage, let alone the screen. Julie Harris memorably proved her credentials in this respect when she was on Broadway playing 12-year-old Frankie Addams in the adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (1950 – 1951), repeating the role on film (1952) – Harris herself was heading towards thirty.

Mildred’s story may be bleak, the rare moments of pleasure showing in sharp relief against the disappointments, but I defy anyone not to feel a warmth and empathy for the character by the curtain call, not to have an understanding of what she went through, what made her what she became – and be thoroughly entertained along the way.

Nightingale widens our understanding of what it was like to grow up in a repressed society, a time when sex was not a subject for discussion, and a woman in danger of being left on the shelf was an embarrassment for family and spinster alike.

Students of drama should make a point of catching John’s performance. This is how it’s done.

Sarah Vernon © 2006

Originally published on R&V on 12-02-06

Update 30th July 2015
Sadly, both actresses, Caroline John and Lynn Redgrave, who had been friends since their days at RADA, have now died of cancer, Miss Redgrave in 2010 and Miss John in 2012. Miss Redgrave was so taken with my review that she got my address from Caroline and sent me a thank you card, which I treasure hugely.

2 comments on “Archive Review • NIGHTINGALE • New End Theatre • 2006

  1. blondieaka

    A lovely review and the “Thank You” card very well deserved 🙂

  2. First Night Design

    Much thanks!

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