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The Meeting (Susan Elkin reviews)

CHICHESTER FESTIVAL THEATRE

At the heart of this production is some fine exceptionally fine acting especially from Lydia Leonard as Rachel and Jean St Clair as her deaf mother of which more anon. But powerful as it is in places the play itself creaks a bit not least because it tries to do too much at once.

We’re in a Quaker community on the south coast of England in the early Nineteenth Century. Napoleon and his forces are only just across the channel so the atmosphere is tense especially for pacifist Quakers. Childless Rachel, who has born three still-born sons, lives with her husband Adam (Gerald Kyd – strong) and her deaf mother for whom she has to interpret. Then an apprentice (Laurie Davidson – plausible) joins the household and the dynamics both of the family and of the wider community are changed for ever.

The trouble with all this is that it’s least three different stories and they don’t knit together very coherently. I yearned to see and learn more of the relationship between Alice and her mother. The mad moment between Alice and the apprentice (think John Proctor and Abigail in The Crucible) on which the plot of the second half hangs didn’t convince me at all. Then there’s a another ‘happy’ family Elder James Rickman (Jim Findley – good) and his wife, garrulous Biddy (Olivia Darnley – enjoyable) in which all is definitely not what it seems. She has married the ‘wrong’ man who “can be quite unquakerly” at night and she is a real Mrs Bennett to her daughter Tabitha (Leona Allen – excellent). I’d welcome a whole play about the Rickman family. I’d like to have known more about the apprentice’s sketchy back story too. As it is The Meeting leaves too many avenues unexplored and ends untied.

Lydia Leonard finds a deeply naturalistic intensity in Rachel. She is troubled, passionate and frustrated by being a thinker who isn’t always permitted to voice her thoughts. She is also held back by having to be her mother’s voice and half the time she doesn’t understand her own feelings all of which Leonard’s outstanding performance catches adroitly.

Deaf actor Jean St Clair is terrific too. She watches intensely and conveys as much with her eyes as many actors fail to do with their whole bodies. She also acts beautifully through signing and when she finally speaks orally at the end of the play it’s pretty moving.

I also loved the set (by Vicki Mortimer) and the sound effects (by Ben and Max Ringham) On one side of the Minerva’s in-the-round stage are tiers of rocks to connote the coast and the stone masonry which is Adam’s trade. Most of the action take place centre stage which represents indoors. Sometimes the space becomes the Quaker Meeting House when an ingenious ring descends and characters lift down chairs which hook into it and sit below it in the traditional Quaker circle of silence. As the ring goes up and down there is an atmospheric scraping noise which heightens the tension. At other moments you can hear Sussex sea birds.

Yes, this is a production with some good moments, ideas and performances but it also struggles to know exactly what it’s trying to do and where it’s going.

Review first published by Sardines: http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-Chichester%20Festival%20Theatre%20(professional)-The%20Meeting&reviewsID=3268

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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