A little bit different. The Simon Williams comedy Nobody’s Perfect takes to the Devonshire Park Theatre stage this week: a play which amuses, entertains, but also warms the heart.
The production opened on Wednesday after a fortnight of concentrated rehearsals: a process which can be quite frazzled and frantic. But when I slip into the back of one session in the Winter Garden Halls, the company seem to be handling the stress rather well, and there are welcoming smiles all round.
Maybe it stems from John Hester. Theatre directors come in a whole range of personalities and working styles, from manic to pedantic, from capricious to enigmatic, but John fits none of those labels. An actor himself, and one well known to Eastbourne audiences, he spreads a quiet, civilised calm and you sense a fairly light hand on the tiller. Two months ago John assuredly directed a delightful Blithe Spirit at the Devonshire Park, and his skill lies in letting actors speak and letting the script speak through them.
Nobody’s Perfect is a comedy about a writer, Myrtle Banbury, who wins a woman’s romantic fiction competition; but Myrtle is a man. However, to claim the prize of a publishing contract he has to meet with the feminist publisher from the publishing house, Love is all Around, as a woman. Confusing? Not really, but original, certainly. Simon came upon the idea when he decided to turn his hand to writing romantic fiction. Here’s his explanation at the time:
“I had written a couple of thrillers, and I said to my agent I thought I might try a blockbusting romance, and she said - not under your own name. Men don’t write romance. If it was written by a man, she couldn’t get it looked at! I’d have to write under the pseudonym of a woman. So then I thought: suppose I wrote a play about a man writing a romance, and he has to dress up as a woman because of the sexism of the romantic fiction industry.”
And so it was. Williams himself played the lead in the production’s first major tour in 2002, which took in the Devonshire Park, and his actor daughter Amy actually played his temperamental stage daughter Dee Dee. Simon is involved this time, too, sitting in on the read-through and now popping into performances. Has the play evolved from the original? “Not significantly,” says John Hester. “There are a few tweaks and updated references, of course, but the essential story is still valid.”
Valid, and very funny. Gentle comedy, or rumbustuous? “Well, it isn’t farce - we aren’t in Ray Cooney territory. You’re caught somewhere between an Ayckbourn and Charley’s Aunt,” responds Stephen Beckett - Coronation Street’s Dr Matt Ramsden - who takes on that Simon Williams role this time. “The dressing up and disguise elements have a ludicrous tinge, and everyone realises it.”
“The play has some very lovely thoughts about feelings, about family, and about love and relationships,” adds Hester. “Leonard, the writer, is really a rather shy statistician by background. In plot terms, the challenge is: can he pull off the outrageous pretence?
But just as intriguing, and very human, are the relationships, including Leonard and his publisher Harriet.”
That publisher is Leah Bracknell, best known on screen for her 16 years as Zoe Tate in Emmerdale, but also a distinguished performer in a range of roles. Even amidst the ruthless demands of rehearsal schedules, Leah has that knack of creating reflective time and space (well, she does happen also to be one of the UK’s leading yoga teachers). “Nobody’s Perfect is a show for all ages, but a romance for the middle-aged - that time of life when you think romance is not going to come your way, but does. And possibly when you are least looking for it - and not in the direction you were expecting it to come from.”
Stephen Beckett warms to the theme. “It is also about the idea that the image on the surface is only what you think you are seeing, and it may not have as much truth as what is on the inside. Two people here meet each other who would never have done in normal circumstances, and that is a fascinating dynamic too.”
Stephen is no stranger to the Eastbourne stage. He last played the Devonshire Park in a recent Death Trap thriller, with John Hester.
By contrast Michael Fenner, who plays crotchety grandfather Gus in this three-generation play, chuckles as he thinks back. “I think I was here in 1988, with a Shakespeare history cycle which we brought to the Congress.” Since then, he has a CV brimming with stage and television roles, including lots at the National and several roles at the Globe Theatre, where he still lectures. Goodness me: whenever the next batch of Honours List performers is due, Lord Fenner might just be on it...
But one of the joys of a production like this is its capacity to embrace the whole range of performers. “I’ve not long finished my training at LAMDA,” says Tilly Standing (Dee Dee) with a little tinge of pride - quite rightly too. Emily Lawes, likewise, is fresh out of the well-regarded drama department at Exeter University, and as Assistant Stage Manager she cheerfully does absolutely everything - even jotting a few busy notes during our chat, as someone remembers a prop that will be required but hasn’t yet turned up. And Tilly and Emily work seamlessly alongside their - dare I say it - more senior colleagues. Many CVs, one purpose: the best theatre productions are a community of equals.
After the two-week Eastbourne run (until September 17th), producers Talking Scarlet take the show on tour to five other venues. From all the cast have told me, it sounds that little bit different.
Devonshire Park regulars will not be disappointed.