First published in The Times, Thursday July 26 2018
There is something discomfiting, even perversely fascinating, about watching Rodney Ackland’s 1949 play in the very week that warnings about food shortages and rationing in the event of a hard Brexit have dominated the news agenda. The backdrop to Ackland’s adaptation of a short story by W Somerset Maugham is a Britain caught in the painful aftershocks of the war where almost every conversation contains references to cost and availability.
As one member of the precariously upper middle class Skinner family notes, everyone has become obsessed to the point of hysteria with food. Mother Blanche (Deirdre Davis) laments her unsettled stomach while in the same breath invoking rich delicacies such as goose and vol-au-vents. An impromptu dinner party provokes a fevered stocktake. Meals are padded out with long-life staples: tomato and Bovril soup, tinned tongue, cans of pears for dessert.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Ackland’s play feels timely, too, in its depiction of a spectrum of hypocrisy that ranges from the comically pathetic to the quietly chilling. Aubrey (Mark Elstob), the patriarch of the Skinner clan and the aspiring Tory candidate in a forthcoming parliamentary by-election, champions nebulous values and principles, berating his youngest daughter Susan (Fiona Wood) for “un-English” behaviour when she owns up to an attack on a schoolmate. Yet, every senior member of the family shows a willingness to overlook the much more serious crime committed by middle daughter Laura (Kirsty McDuff) when they spot an opportunity for serious financial and social advantage.
Pic: Douglas McBride
The era of belt-tightening and make-do-and-mend is nicely evoked in Gemma Fairlie’s production for Pitlochry, which features handsome set and costume designs from Amanda Stoodley and lighting design by Wayne Dowdeswell that telegraphs the play’s shifting moods. Indeed, the production values rather flatter Ackland’s play, whose tone switches between satire and melodrama without ever settling or attempting somehow to reconcile the two. The scenes involving the haunted Laura’s memories of her tragic marriage to an alcoholic sit awkwardly with the otherwise caustic portrayal of a grotesque family.
Nonetheless, there are just enough telling asides and amusingly ironic moments in Ackland’s script to keep us engaged as we wait for the creaky story to resolve itself. The material is elevated in Fairlie’s production by some fine comic performances, notably Elstob’s charlatan father, and Niamh Bracken as Kathleen, the eldest Skinner sister, who channels her sense of inadequacy into meanness and petty point-scoring.