“Care for a Jelly baby?”
Some years ago, I wrote a play called ‘Sexing Alan Titchmarsh’. This was a fairly broad comedy loosely based on Noel Coward’s ‘Brief Encounter’. For various reasons that great gardener Clay Jones recorded some dialogue for me. We got talking about ‘Brief Encounter’ and he said in his rich Welsh voice: ‘I don’t know the story very well, but wasn’t it the one where two very ordinary people are brought together by someone getting a bit of grit in the eye?’ I was reminded of this incident by Mark Giesser’s terrific adaptation of Chekhov’s short story ‘The Lady with a dog’. Chekhov’s plot is not really about ‘two very ordinary people’ but it does feature a character that has something lodged in his eye.
Chekhov’s original story was published in 1899. It describes an illicit affair between Dimitri Gurov and Anna Von Diderits. Their affair begins while both are vacationing –singly- in the Crimean sea resort of Yalta. Giesser has moved the action to post First World War. He sets it in the Coastal resort of Berwick, which he places in Scotland. Now I know Berwick has over the years been a disputed northern town. Yet, as my companion pointed out, Berwick after the first war was firmly in England. Given that Shakespeare seems to have a very sketchy geographical knowledge- he has one of his characters going from Verona to Milan by ship, a somewhat tricky journey given that Milan is landlocked – I think we can forgive Giesser. Much more important to Giesser- and to us- is his transitioning of the story to a world where ‘uncertain romantic certainties begin to take shape’.
Damian Granville (a very suave and chilling Alan Turkington) is in a relatively unhappy marriage. While taking a holiday in Berwick he meets Anne Dennis walking her little Pomeranian dog. She is also in a loveless marriage. Without wishing to give too much of the plot away, they fall in love. But their affair is rather stymied by Anne’s husband, Carl, calling her back to home. His eye problem has reared up again. Damian waves her goodbye thinking that is ‘the end of the affair’. But he finds he can’t get Anne out of his mind. He tracks her down and there is a gloriously funny scene in a cinema when he helps the cuckolded husband with his puzzle book, makes his feelings plain to Anne, and accepts numerous Jelly Babies. Where Chekhov is so brilliant is not giving his story a conventional ending. As Vladimir Nabokov has written: ‘all the traditional rules have been broken ... it is one of the greatest stories ever written’.
As director and adaptor Mark Giesser has done a first-rate job. He really seems to have left nothing out of the source material. His telling of the tale is both sharp and involving. His direction is superb. Every move and gesture in this small space is sure footed and perspicacious. The set design of Oscar Selfridge is beautifully executed. While the Costume design of Guilia Scrimieri is to die for. The acting is of the highest order. Duncan MacInnes and Laura Glover as the respective partners- Carl Dennis and Elaine Granville- find an honest veracity that is compelling. But it is Beth Burrows as Anne Dennis who takes the performance honours. She gives a searing performance and makes it look quite effortless. A tremendous achievement.
The origin of Carl Dennis’s eye problem is never fully explained. It is certainly not a piece of grit. It’s implied it may have been caused by the French love of Garlic. So, like Dracula, and the Vampire hordes, I think I shall avoid this herb in the future.
THE LADY WITH A DOG
Tues-Sat 7.30, Sun 4.00
White Bear Theatre
138 Kennington Park Road
Tickets: 020 7793 9193
Reviewer Richard Braine is actor, director and playwright.
As an Actor he has worked extensively throughout the country including Chichester Festival Theatre, Manchester Royal Exchange, Birmingham Rep, and Stephen Joseph Theatre in Yorkshire. His Television and Film credits include: “Calendar Girls”, “Pride, Prejudice and Zombies”, “Finding Neverland”, “Bridget Jones”, “Suspicions of Mr Whicher”, “Mr Selfridge” and many years ago Gussie Fink-Nottle in “Jeeves and Wooster”. He has also filmed over 150 Commercials all over the world.
He has directed the European premiere of Sternheim/Martin “The Underpants” at The Old Red Lion Theatre and written three plays: “Being There with Sellers”, “Bedding Clay Jones” and “Sexing Alan Titchmarsh”.