Ensemble Theatre’s adaption of the story turned film, Ladies in Lavender, provides a slow and somewhat touching story of two elderly spinster sisters who rescue a half drowned polish Violin player from the shore outside their house in pre WW2 England.
Although a fine story, the plot was simple and predictable, thus what may have worked as a short story somewhat failed to engage as a play. William
Locke’s original short story, was adapted into a screenplay by Charles Dance (in a charming 2004 film starring Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith), which was finally adapted into a play by Shawn McKenna. The limited plot exposition established the mood that these events were occurring in an isolated vacuum. However some context was given through Dr Mead’s xenophobia, and Janet’s war stricken grief. Regardless of this, the anticlimactic ending doesn’t take away from the play’s charm, which lies in the performances.
The production, although well-acted by all, thrives on Sharon Flanagan’s performance as Ursula, the more childlike, naïve and emotional of the two Widdington sisters. Her puppy-like youthfulness and energy were sustained throughout the whole production, although sometimes her performance felt melodramatic. She also presented an interesting dichotomy in contrast to her sister, Janet (Penny Cook), whose stoic and mature nature conveys the traditional values of her time (such as her determination to avoid discussion of her WW1- dead husband). Benjamin Hotjes was strong as the talented violinist, and sustained a convincing accent, aided by the dialect coaching of Jennifer White. Lisa Gormley’s portrayal of Olga- the artist who happens to be the sister of a Russian Violin prodigy- was boring as the script gave her little to work with beyond appearing alluring. Dorcas, the vigilant housekeeper was brought to life with gusto by Gael Ballantyne, whose dry wit provided good comic relief throughout the poignant storyline.
The design of the production establishes the isolated coastal town vibe, with Nicholas Higgin’s lighting, Daryl Wallis’s soundscape and Margaret Gill’s realistic period costuming. The lighting established tone well and removed the need for props in scene changes, from a yellowy beach wash, to a dramatic spotlight during Ursula’s reading of The Little Mermaid. Anna Gardiner’s set made efficient use of the Ensemble’s amphitheatric shape with an upstairs and downstairs. This allowed two scenes to be played simultaneously, and provided constant engagement for audience members.
Directed by Nicole Buffoni, this heart-warming production was strongly influenced by the intertextual inclusion of the story of The Little Mermaid, which Ursula (coincidently a character in that story) reads to Andrea. Ursula’s reading of a tale of desire and young love allows deeper insight into a lonely character longing for affection. Hans Christian Anderson’s fable also involves the mermaid rescuing the prince from a
storm, however despite this it is apparent at the ending of the production that it is really Andrea that has saved the Widdington sisters.
The play is cyclical, beginning and ending with the sisters listening to music on the radio, only it is Andrea’s debut performance in London that they are enjoying in the finale. As the play concludes, with Andrea’s silhouette standing above them mid performance, one is reminded that despite the sisters’ lives having been profoundly affected, nothing has really changed. This emotionally affecting, yet unsatisfying finale feels unfair to an audience so invested in the sisters’ happiness, however realism must prevail, and Ursula’s fantastical dreams of love set aside.
Although somewhat slow paced, this poignant and heart-warming production combines strong performances with quality production elements to produce a fine interpretation of this simple story.