On entering the theatre one was met by a thin veil of smoke and ominous street sounds of footsteps, horse hooves and dogs that aimed to conjure up the archetypal London pea-souper of the early 20th century. This immediately set the atmosphere for The Shepperton Players latest production, The Lodger, a theatrical adaptation by Steve Lewis of the 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. The novel has been adapted for the screen five times, from Alfred Hitchcock’s silent version in 1928 with Ivor Novello as the lodger to David Ondaatje’s 2009 update with Simon Baker in the lodger and Alfred Molina as the detective given a more central role.
The piece is a difficult one – it is quite dated and relies heavily on the steady build up of tension and moral dread. Not at all an easy thing to achieve in today’s climate of calculated and well crafted dramatic structure, with audiences used to so much well written drama served up on television. This piece had a relatively simple linear structure with no real twists. Instead its motor was the psychological conflict of the central character Mrs Bunting (an excellent Emma Dow) and the creeping sense of foreboding as the revelation of the Lodger as the maniacal killer is played out.
It was therefore brave of the company to embark on something that required a sustained and subtle atmosphere which, if lost, might cause it to fall flat. There were several hurdles to overcome to keep the audience suitably chilled and uneasy rather than letting their attention wander.
The first and least hurdle was the adaptation by Steve Lewis, which energetically presented the story with rather too many words but a good ear for dialogue and character. I don’t know the novel so cannot comment on its accuracy but overall it was good writing, it held together for the most part and only needed some judicious editing with perhaps greater consideration of structure. For a first such adaptation by Lewis it was a success.
The second hurdle was the setting – much too deep with a great gulf between the audience and much of the action. The basic structure of the set was fine, and the dressing was excellent with many period details (a fine range in the kitchen at the front with glowing coals, a skylight above the front door and a tap that even produced water at one point to wash away blood!) Designed by Steve Lewis and Ron Millinger and built by Andrew Hellicar and many others it had clearly taken much time and effort. But its depth meant that the main area for much of the action was at the back of the upper stage, further receded from the audience by a large area at the front for a single court scene at the beginning of Act 2, and an under-used the basement kitchen. All could have been concertina-ed forward, which would have made it easier for the cast to communicate with the audience.
The third hurdle was the lighting – gloomy, mostly uncoloured and with several black spots into which actors’ faces disappeared at critical moments. It was far from atmospheric – too much wash on the flats stage left and no back light. And it meant that actors already quite far away were difficult to see clearly.
All of this did mean that the actors were up against it to get across the finer points of the drama. The central role was Ellen Bunting, an intelligent and observant woman commandingly played by Emma Dow – clear and accurate throughout she held the whole thing together, onstage for most of the time and with a good range both vocally and in body movement. Her gradual realisation of the Lodger’s possible connection with the murders was clear – and her dilemma was increasingly visceral and painful to watch. She ably covered for (rare) stumbled lines by others and her energy kept the show on the road. She was well supported by Peter Smith as her husband Bob, who came across as a bit of a duffer but with a good nature.
Alex Johnson oozed himself into the role of the lodger with an obvious enjoyment but somehow did not seem as sinister as he should. It’s a tough role as he has to drive the atmosphere of the play and Johnson made the most of it with deliberate movements and creepy delivery.
Peter Cornish (unrecognisable from his previous performance in Decadence) as Joe Chandler had an easier time as the genial plod with an eye for the Bunting’s daughter Daisy (played by Carrie Millinger in a succession of wonderful period dresses). He pootered around jovially and kept the plot flowing. Their affair is sweet and rather sentimental – and is an innocence designed to contrast the moral darkness elsewhere. Daisy simpered skillfully and shreiked gamely as she was assaulted by the Lodger – though she seemed to recover remarkably quickly.
The short court scene was lively and full of character – Robert Johnson’s Usher and Ron Millinger’s Coroner struggling to keep control over proceedings and Sophie Tame, Katherine Lewis and Eric Champion as witnesses making the best of small parts.
Despite reservations expressed above, much of it did work very well – there were many fine touches with sound effects and the clever use of newspapers that helped mark the passage of time. The energy rarely sagged and Steve Lewis’s direction showed an intelligent understanding of the story. The tension was steadily wound up despite the structural problems and built towards a denouement which was perhaps a little underpowered – some of the audience on the night I went, rather unkindly, could not suppress an occasional laugh at the wrong moment. I, however, was grateful to have been introduced to a piece I had not met before and enjoyed it considerably.