The original novel on which this play was based is an extremely funny account of heroic failure (Nobbs also created Reginald Perrin) with sharp observations and a wonderfully lugubrious dark humour. It follows the young Henry Pratt in his battles with the world, saddled with too much imagination, over-weight and socially awkward.
Shepperton Players boldly took on this tale of simultaneous gloom and hilarity in an energetic and colourful production that rattled along with some great cameo performances. The director Olwen Holme acknowledged that she had marshalled a large cast – often necessary in flourishing amateur groups like this and she shared out parts to sixteen actors who responded with discipline and energy. All were clear and lively, though the varying degrees of experience showed at times.
It was a highly entertaining evening and the small audience laughed in all the right places – though it took a little time for the tone to emerge as most of the funniest moments seemed to involve an unfortunate tragedy – death as the punch line.
The writing has depth and paradoxical humour from the outset: in the first scene of Henry’s birth, the family parrot routinely tells everyone to ‘bugger off’ including Henry’s put-upon father Ezra played by Ron Millinger. Hearing the baby’s cries the parrot later imitates them too – and Ezra disposes of the bird. An act of parricide? This is the nature of the wit – not belly laughs but wry chuckling.
The first half was fast and some interesting characterisation emerged – though at times the lines needed to be allowed to breathe and not be too rushed. It was as if the cast did not quite have the confidence that the whole thing would work together (I saw the first performance). Later it settled and opened up and the second half was more accomplished as if the whole cast had collectively sighed with relief during the interval.
Throughout there were many small touches showing an intelligence in the direction and in the individual work of the actors. Outside of the main parts, moments that stood out to me were the excruciatingly compressed conversation between two teachers Miss Candy (Sophie Tame) and Miss Forest (Sue Dye); Cousin Hilda (Katharine Lewis) invoking the spirit of Norah Batty as she repelled the advances of her randy lodger (Eric Champion); the seriously odd performers in the Rawlaston Working Men’s Club (more please!); Alex Johnson and Peter Cornish hamming it up with gusto as two awful public schoolboy stereotypes; the chat of the children in the barn a truthful mix of smut and bullying; and Billy the Half-wit (Keith Doyle) to whose station Henry aspired (is half a wit better than no wit at all?). Most enjoyable was the first scene of the second half – an awkward event, underlining the complex social frictions that run throughout the play, with Doris Neville-Davies, as Aunty Doris, looking like Alison Steadman from Abigail’s Party – and channelling the recent ghost of a certain Margaret Hilda Roberts. And with Daphne’s (Anne Wheeldon) pregnant pauses revealingly (‘freudian-ly’ ?) filled in by others.
The central performance by Billy Reynolds as Henry, aging from four to eighteen, was the key to the overall success of the production. His ability to project victimhood without making himself sentimental was portrayed with a truly innocent view upon the world and an uncomfortable clarity that was appreciated by few except his teacher Mr Quell (Keith Doyle – clever double casting). Reynolds wove his way entertainingly along the line between tragic ‘simpleton’ and gnostic savant with an undimmed determination to prevail; his bright-eyed literary enthusiasm for Captain W E Johns confusing Gimlet with Hamlet.
The setting was functional and effective, occasionally a little too busy but never distracting. It all looked good (lighting generally a bit flat but a nice touch with the clouds – and the penultimate scene in the pub was lit excellently). Having so many scenes always presents a problem on stage but each setting was always clear and concise. The original stage adaptation used lots of slides to create a sense of location but this production instead used music – a stroke of genius, especially to those of us who recognised most of it – George Formby and Dick Barton as evocative of the time and place as knitted sleeveless v-necks or sepia pictures of t’ mills.
It was a clever production, all the right ingredients in place – a little undercooked in parts but with some memorable moments.