theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
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.
Food & Wine
~ my everyday life through the lens of my camera ~
Helping Improve Lives
Vintage Inspired Paper Crafts & Digital Design
I make faces.
A journey through life in Southwest France
Historical Fiction with a French Flavour
It isn't being John Malkovich, but it is being me
Dispatches from the Crossroads of Culture, Cookery, & Creativity
Daily Reflections from My Home and Garden
The Power of Story
Unlocking the Door to Your Past
Not just a blog, a philosophy
The #1 budget recipe website
Realist, writer, reader and reviewer, and rocker.
The Real England is a concise, direct, and not-so-gentle window into the depths of the leftovers of the world’s once greatest empire. It is told from the perspective of one lone (or not so lone) long term visitor. It informs one of the dregs of the country and helps to explain quaint British oddities such as the crack addicted chav.
home and away...
Artists, Writers and Visionaries Blog on the Unique and Ordinary
Collected works and other excuses from a textile obssessive
has random thoughts
Airborne, Seadwellers and Landlubbers Lives
Working with dead people
Writing - Loving What I Do and Doing What I Love!
the darker side to sedge808
Photographs, music and writing about daily life. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Creative Intuitive from New Zealand
Family Saga Fiction by Adrienne Morris
Burgers, Books, Music, Movies, Offbeat Adventures & Pop Culture!
theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...
Candid cultural comments from the Isles of Wonder
Horror, Science Fiction, Comic Books and More
Traveling the World Through Others
A trip through life with fingers crossed and eternal optimism.
Art, Literature, Poetry, Politics and a little History
Travel and Wildlife Adventures
Writer & Author
it's all about the story, possums...
Observations of the illusion through the eyes of wonder...
Adventures in Watercolor Painting and Sketching, Watercolour Magazine, with Charlie O'Shields
Memoir, poetry, & writing theory
The Bridge between two countries
A lifestyle blog with a little bit of everything.
A personal exploration of autism from a brother’s perspective, including family relationships, philosophy, neuroscience, mental health history and ethics