A world stage premiere at the Devonshire Park this week: Middle Ground Theatre arrives with Ruth Rendell’s darkly dramatic Gallowglass.
Rendell – writing here as Barbara Vine – is crime-writing royalty: find fault at your peril.
But Gallowglass, a relentless tale of kidnap and blackmail, is heavy on plot and light on human insights. Fortunately for Dame Ruth, the material is redeemed by some of the finest acting that we have seen for ages at the Devonshire Park. This Middle Ground company expertly brings credibility and depth: a third dimension, where only two were written.
We are in 1990, and the period is nicely re-created. Italy still has lire and not euros, the car of choice is a Volvo 343, and technology extends no further than clunky cassette-recorders. In the page-to-stage process, the production does have serious obstacles to clamber over.
The story is set in multiple locations, from shabby Notting Hill flats to grand mansions, via railway platforms and a mobile home. A split stage is efficiently employed, and expansive cloth projections take us to seashores and country estates, but the scene changes remain a challenge for the valiant crew.
Those drawbacks are a small price to pay, though, for the immediacy and genuine tension which only live theatre can bring. Tuesday night’s audience was intrigued, absorbed and ultimately gripped by Rendell’s twisting, lurching story.
The plot burns slowly in a long first half, like a novel whose pages you keep turning mechanically in the hope of more excitement, but the tension creeps up on you, and it finally explodes into a dramatic denouement. Credibility is stretched, but not quite to breaking point. There are even moments of comedy, but you only laugh nervously. A cast of ten has no weak links, and without exception the acting is accomplished. Characterisations which might easily have become hammy or hackneyed are anything but: these are actors at the top of their art.
Joe Eyre stands out as central character and malign genius Sandor. Obsessed, narcissistic, manipulative, scathing, his performance dominates the stage and the action: a genuine tour de force. Growing less likeable by the minute, he is a study in amorality.
Dean Smith’s unstable, inadequate Joe, in thrall to Sandor, is also superbly played: their bizarre relationship has a hint of Pinter, and just a touch of Blackadder and Baldrick.
And the excellent performances just tumble out from the rest of the cast. Florence Cady finely balances composure and fear as kidnap target Nina, improbably married to Richard Walsh’s Apsoland, an affable landowner in tweeds and MCC tie. Matthew Wellman is an enigmatic, rather underwritten Colombo, while Paul Opacic’s Garnett – almost the only truly sympathetic character – is the soul of a father with huge life-or-death decisions to make. Garnett’s schoolgirl daughter Jessica is engagingly and very expertly played, several years down in age, by Eva Sayer.
Incidentally, I had caught up with a couple of their cast on their last stopover, the Orchard Theatre in Dartford. Richard Walsh won the affection of millions in ITV’s London’s Burning, but is equally happy to be assistant director and, dare we say, father figure on tour. “I started in musical theatre – Chicago, guys and Dolls in the West End – and I was first at your lovely Devonshire Park in 1979, in The Beggars’ Opera,” recalls genial Richard. And then you moved to the serious acting? “It doesn’t happen like that in a performing career – it moves you rather than you moving it, and you go where the work is! Touring is endlessly demanding but endlessly rewarding. You can play to a packed theatre one week and a tiny venue the next, but they still deserve the very best performance you can give, because they’ve all paid the same money!”
Eva Sayer, while still an actual child actress, hauntingly played Flora in BBC’s 2009 Turn of the Screw. “I promise I’ll start playing my real age soon,” laughs Eva, now 21, “but these parts are fun while they last! I just love what I’m doing and I think of myself as fortunate – a bit like a hobby but being paid for it, although naturally I approach it properly and professionally. My ambitions for parts I’d just love to play have to be the big period productions, the costume dramas. I’ll just see what happens next!” There you are, folks: remember Eva when she is back at the Devonshire as Emma or Jane Eyre....
Reliable support in Gallowglass comes from Karen Drury, the dissolute mother dissolving into large glasses of wine, from Rachael Hart’s alarmingly unscrupulous Essex girl Tilley, and from Jog Maher’s hotel manager. Oh, and a little mention for the unsung understudies – no fewer than five of them, and almost all in attendance on Tuesday night. I hope they get a look-in on the tour. Break a leg, everyone...By Kevin Anderson.