Review:  The Garrick - Don't Look Now

Pictured: Nicola Nuttall (top left), Anne Chadwick, Lynne Cummings and Steve Cooke in Dont Look Now. (s)

The Garrick’s latest staging - a thriller about the stabs of bereavement - is slicing up tradition by swinging audiences to the darker side of life.

Based on the novella by Daphne du Maurier and adapted for the stage by Nell Leyshon, Don’t Look Now follows couple John and Laura as they escape to Venice after the tragic loss of their young daughter.

Soothed by the romance of the city, wounds begin to heal as the couple come to terms with the tragedy. But when they meet a pair of sisters claiming to be psychic, they find themselves ensnared in a series of strange and violent events.

Harvey Levene’s setting - an artistic, greyed out Venice pierced with black like trickles of dark blood - captured the eeriness of the city’s romance: the duality of recovery and indistinguishable grief; of escapism and carpe diem set against the inevitability and unpredictability of death.

The build-up of suspense was at times haphazard - not always linking together in an intricate puzzle - but there were sufficient touches of eeriness to startle audiences.

Nicola Nuttall was warm, confident and articulate as Laura though the performance lacked the deep cut of grief - that bone-grinding weariness - to feel fully invested in the character and plot.

There were some holes in the script itself: surely a mother eroded by grief, who believed the sisters’ claim that her daughter’s spirit remained in the world of the living, would cancel all sight-seeing plans to try and make contact with the ghost?

Steve Cooke as John slipped ably from a range of emotions and tones: anxiety; grief; optimism; sarcasm; impatience etc. Splashes of comedy were provided by David Pilkington in supporting roles as an Italian waiter and police officer. He rolled onto the stage as naturally as sunshine, bringing warmth and light to these small roles and ballooning their comic potential. Pilkington has the comic understanding to leave audiences in stitches with a single look. It’s all down to the details he brought to the roles, painting each character with individual mannerisms.

Support also came from Anne Chadwick, Lynne Cummings, James Bateman, Michael Mullen, Peter Allen and Ruby Whittaker.

The Garrick’s staging captured plenty of light and dark: but if the lines had been blurred a little more, to reflect the reality of human complexities, the emotional pelt would have hit all the harder.

Laura Longworth - Burnley Express , Friday, 12th May, 2017

Don’t Look Now

by Nell Leyshon

Burnley Garrick

Pictured: Nicola Nuttall (top left), Anne Chadwick, Lynne Cummings and Steve Cooke in Dont Look Now. (s)

When I first saw the film, ‘Don’t Look Now’, based on the novella by Daphne du Maurier and directed by Nicholas Roeg, I was much too young to appreciate it fully. Even at the age of ten, I enjoyed the cinematography, the story and the performances in the film, more so than the plays I was being taken to see at that time, but I didn’t know why. In my young mind, I responded to the emotional content, however, I certainly wasn’t prepared or old enough for the darkness and the sheer horror that is both masked and overt in the writing. Although my appreciation was on a superficial level, barely scratching the surface: a woman ‘upset by the death of her daughter’ (lost, in fact, in her grief), a man unable to console adequately (also floundering, struggling to comprehend his own emotions let alone those of his wife) and I hadn’t yet acquired an understanding of the complexities of the performances or the emotions that the two leading actors were portraying so very well, I loved the film, for all its detail – visually and dramatically. It was beautiful and horribly frightening; poignant and chilling. I have carried around this memory of dramatized consequences of deep love and tragic loss, set in Venice, for almost five decades. The prospect of watching Nell Leyshon’s adaptation was indeed an exciting one.

As I took my seat and gazed at the stage I could not help but immediately congratulate the set designer. I was expecting a vision of Venice that has been in my nightmares since watching the film version, and there it was. Creative use of moveable flats flanking the almost central vista – the canal, the boats, the sky – black and grey in the house lights but magically transformed by creative lighting that painted a purple-pink evening wash onto the grim grey of the stone walls that were the restaurant and hotel at different points in this production. Harvey Levene demonstrated an artist’s hand in his design, and it was one that was beautifully enhanced by the skilful brushstrokes of Noreen Lobo and Corrina Clark. Clearly the set construction team, Nigel Catterall, Trevor Riley, David Simpson and Martin Chadwick, must have had a huge task in fitting in and constructing a set that was successful, and sometimes tricky to shift on occasions. The stage manager (Ken Entwistle) and his team of set movers were kept busy and the overall effect worked extremely well. One particular scene finds the main characters in a church: the set was such a beautiful piece of stagecraft that I missed several lines of dialogue as my eyes were taken up around the set in admiration of the work that had gone into recreating the shadow of the church window, an image that covered a flat almost entirely, giving the illusion of great height: it also brought a hush around the auditorium as the audience felt the gravity of the building and the need for stillness within a space of such majesty. One element that was only a tad less successful was the bedroom, cramped and at the very back of the stage, it was a tight squeeze for the actors (who, from my seat on the left of the auditorium, disappeared occasionally) but they coped admirably, and this set had to be so much within a tight time-frame, that it was an acceptable compromise, and the action on stage was not spoiled because of this.

The theme of bereavement runs through the play: to understand the depth of grief in bereavement fully is to have known it oneself, and it must have been a challenge to direct characters (in this case, Laura and John) who are experiencing this to such a degree, and an even greater one to portray such loss – particularly of one’s own child. Nicola Nuttall (Laura) performed confidently and with clarity, yet the characterisation seemed too subtle. Her performance was warm and clearly she had dedicated much time to her character, yet I was left feeling remote from her – I couldn’t engage with her, and I was left wondering if the problem was in the script rather than the actress herself. The scripted actions and dialogue of the two leads were both inadequate and for me, not credible. Steve Cooke (John) also delivered with clarity, yet not convincingly, his words were as dispassionate as his actions and yet did not lead me to believe that this was his way of coping, by denial : when Laura busies around packing to return home after news of her son’s impending operation for appendicitis, John’s comment is a curious, “You’re quite a whirlwind”, to which Laura calmly responds, “…I’m a mother”.  Neither line here persuaded me of supposed distress - as parents who have recently lost a child - through delivery or content.  And the more I try to reconcile the characters (rather than the actors) with their situation, the more I am left to wonder where exactly the problem lay. There were one or two moments where affection was displayed between the couple, and this was lovely to see. However, I did not believe their grief, nor did I believe in their relationship, and this was a shame.

Nevertheless, we were treated to much humour through the characters of the hilarious musician (Michael Mullen) and hotel clerk (James Bateman) and most particularly, through the restaurant proprietor (David Pilkington). This was light relief to the bleak setting, the dark cloud of paranormal activity and the subject of grief and stress felt by the couple.

More convincing for me were the two sisters who seemed to appear out of the shadows with surreal menace: when initially on stage, Anne Chadwick and Lynne Cummings were delightful. It was their appearance that initiated the humour element, creating mirth between the two leads, and in the audience watching. It was comedy that quickly became foreboding and as sinister as the clouds gathering in the skies over Venice. The thriller aspect was felt loudly: sudden, shrill screams from nowhere pierced the auditorium, startling the audience and wiping out the chuckles that had rippled around the theatre only moments before.

John Cummings appears to have astutely questioned the script and cleverly further peppered it with spots of infectious humour, and for this reason, it was perhaps a lighter, more audience-friendly play than it would have been had it been performed differently. I felt a growing admiration for John’s ability to draw out charisma from the smallest of character parts, of which there were several, and all cleverly portrayed, with a tongue in cheek, painting a picture of slight exaggeration that worked well in a play about mental instability, emotional turbulence and ambiguity. Michael Mullen, David Pilkington and James Bateman played all the parts brilliantly, supported ably by Peter Allen. It was touching too, to note that The Garrick had, in choosing this play, given a young actor, Ruby Whittaker, an opportunity to experience the ACE theatre stage as the red-cloaked killer, who made two fleeting appearances. Something also worthy of note was the absence of audible prompts: if Jackie Williamson had been at all needed, it was with quiet subtlety that prompts were given and taken. Costumes and props were of the usual high standard, with an attention to detail.

I wrote down on my notepad towards the end of the play that the style reminded me of afternoon Radio 4 drama.  I later discovered that Nell Leyshon writes for BBC Radio 3 and 4: it is a style with which I am very familiar. However, without that audacious set, the play would be devoid of one this production’s greatest assets, the visual impact on the audience – so bold and necessary, reminding one of the developing and enveloping darkness throughout.

Described in 2010 by The Guardian as the third best horror film of all time. It is also suggested that the labyrinth that is much of Venice still causes many visitors to peer cautiously over their shoulder, perchance they should spot a small red-coated figure, running over the bridges and disappearing into the narrow streets. I did not leave the theatre feeling that the script had left me thinking this way. However, I did feel that I had just witnessed something very creative on stage, and those reflections will stay in my mind for a long time.

ACT in Action Review by Gilly Fontaine-Grist