reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 27 April
Attitudes change from one generation to the next, and it’s easy to forget how recent the past can be. Gus Gowland’s musical play offers us three generations of a family whose house-clearance after the death of a grandfather opens a Pandora’s box of memories, not all of them welcome. Fin Redshaw’s multi-location set suits it very well.
Jane (Carol Starks) is the pivotal character, a woman who has grown a thick shell as she brings up her gay son Ed (Andy Coxon) and with-it teenage daughter Gemma (Ella Dunlop). She cannot tolerate Ed’s boy friend Harry (Gary Wood) and is brusque to the point of rudeness when elderly Rose (Marilyn Cutts) wanders in.
Director Ryan McBryde balances our interest skillfully between these characters. Gradually we learn that, serving in the Second World War grandfather Edward (Craig Mather) had an affair with a fellow soldier Tom (Joel Harper-Jackson). Both men are married – Edward to Anna (Lauren Hall) while Tom has a young sister Rose (Nicole Grumann).
Gowland’s score requires good singing voices, which this cast supplies, while the accompaniment by Pail Herbert, Liz Hanks and Fraiser Patterson weaves in and out of the set-piece numbers without ever overwhelming them. It’s all tuneful – a bonus nowadays – without being particularly memorable, but always fits both the action and the characters.
As the older Rose, Cutts somewhat steals the show; you’re never quite sure whether her presence is benign or mischievous. Dunlop is thoroughly credible as the teenager wanting her own spa ce and to do her own thing. Coxon and Wood also inhabit their characters; Wood’s hurt at Jane’s blatant attempts to freeze him out is chilling as well as salutary.
Both Mather and Harper-Jackson make one sympathise with their sexual and social dilemmas, Harper-Jackson’s Tom being much more open than Mather’s more hidebound Edward. The effect on their womenfolks – Rose’s discovery of the men kissing and Anna’s scarcely perceived and not articulated sense that there is something not quite right in her marriage – is not minimised.
That attitude change reflects in an audience’s reaction, though first-night audiences’ responses are notoriously difficult to assess for validity. Debates about gender, nature versus nurture and generational assumptions and misunderstandings are as old as civilisation, literature and theatre. This is a melodic addition.
Four star rating.
Pieces of String runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 5 May with a matinée on 5 May.