There are plenty of laughs while Paul Miller’s triumphant production of Terence Rattigan’s brilliant comedy lights up the stage. This is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time.
The wartime wedding of Earl Harpeden and Lady Elisabeth becomes a farce when she meets two Allied soldiers who make her think again about getting hitched. The trouble is a question of experience: blasé Bobbie has been around, while Elisabeth is too innocent for both their good.
Philip Labey takes the lead as the Earl with an “open boyish manner” balanced by a knowing touch: this toff is nice and not dim. Labey’s is a massive role marked by a generosity to colleagues that benefits all. And Labey has the ability to generate sympathy; for all the flippancy and fun, I wanted the marriage to go ahead. Rebecca Collingwood plays the intended, showing Elisabeth has a mind of her own. Collingwood’s depiction of wide-eyed innocence is funnier than you can imagine – howls of laughter greet the simplest statements.
Conor Glean is an appealing Lieutenant Mulvaney fresh off the boat from the US of A. The performance is neat and the humour gentle. Michael Lumsden and John Hudson play a bluff Major and a refined butler respectively – both to perfection. If Jordan Mifsúd’s Lieutenant Colbert got more laughs from me, put it down to ‘appy memories of ‘Allo ‘Allo. Mifsúd’s faux-French is a skilled work of genius.
Really stealing the show is the man-eater and self-confessed trollop Mabel Crum. I wonder if she was Rattigan’s favourite part? Mabel gets laughs even when she’s not on stage. Sophie Khan Levy’s embodiment of this confident and caring character shows how essential the role is in this carefully constructed play.
It’s Mabel who ends up in charge. Don’t be fooled that she’s continually sent to the kitchen. Prodding male egos in While The Sun Shines shows a subversive touch that has aged well. The distasteful attempts at seduction would have been as off for Rattigan as they are for us, but offence is deflated by how useless the men are! And it isn’t just one couple under the microscope here – it’s the institution of marriage. That Mabel stands aloof from it all makes her a character to cheer. Mabel gets the last laugh. The audience laugh all along.
Guy Slater’s new play makes for an informative history lesson about Myanmar. The country is in the news and the theatre is dedicating the run to Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, currently imprisoned in Yangon. But this piece struggles to make a drama out of the past or to make current events seem urgent. Fighting to introduce the personal into the political, Eastern Star ends up being a dull play about an important subject.
This is the true story of BBC journalist Christopher Gunness and his source during the protests of 1988, a man whose code name gives the play its title. The men are reunited after 25 years, and it seems we are supposed to be shocked that they have led different lives. In order to fill us in on events, in scene after scene, characters display disbelief that living under military rule or going to prison for 16 years is not… nice.
The experienced cast does well enough to convey the heavy issues, despite the clumsy script (I’ve no doubt a couple of press night stumbles will be ironed out quickly). But Michael Lumsden, who plays the now lauded former reporter, has to portray a character who becomes tiring. The possibility that he inadvertently revealed Eastern Star’s identity to the authorities is drawn out with prolonged hand-wringing in a failed attempt to create tension. David Yip takes the title role, aka U Nay Min, and does well to convey the trauma and anger of his character – that of the “silent architect” of popular protest now written out of history.
What the people of Myanmar know about their history could be explored more. Slater provides the device, a niece who now hears her uncle’s story, capably performed by Julie Cheung-Inhin. But we need more of her to stop the role becoming patronising: we only get generic comments about a younger generation. The play suffers from repetition and it is only Slater’s firm direction, notably more proficient that his text, that gives any pace.
It’s not that Eastern Star doesn’t provide food for thought. But the conservative structure and dialogue are tiresome. Lumsden has to deal with a lot of journalese, there seems little difference between his everyday speech and flashbacks of his reporting. It’s clear we’re in trouble from the start when he returns to Myanmar to settle “unfinished business”, surely a phrase better suited to a Hollywood movie. Like many of the clichéd efforts to inject excitement, Slater doesn’t just fail, he frustrates his play’s worthy aims.