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Bodies (Susan Elkin reviews)

by James Saunders. Produced by Two’s Company and Karl Sydow in association with Tilly Films
society/company: Southwark Playhouse
performance date: 15 Feb 2019
venue: Southwark Playhouse. 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD
 

★★★★

Although slightly disjointed in the first half hour or so, James Saunders’s 1977 play is an arresting piece undeserving of the obscurity in which it has languished for most of the last forty years.

In the first act we meet two middle class couples. Each of them speaks mostly to the audience rather than to each other and we gradually learn that each is in the throes of an affair with the other’s spouse. And subliminally they all know what’s going on. The second act presents them all together, nine years later after a long break, at an initially awkward but then revelatory dinner party. The play is very good indeed at exploring group dynamics and Tricia Thorns’s direction carefully brings out every nuance.

All four are pleasing actors but Tim Welton as Mervyn is the star of the evening. Mervyn is a secondary English teacher, promoted to a headship by Act II. He postures, fulminates, persuades, shouts, pleads and says outrageous things. You can imagine him taking assembly. But he’s no stereotype. His pupil Simpson, is a key off-stage character whom we feel we come to know and understand through Welton’s long impassioned speeches. Mervyn gets steadily more drunk too which Welton handles with admirable skill and control. It’s a bravura performance and his is the character we feel most interested in.

There’s also some splendid work from Annabel Mullion as Mervyn’s wife, Anne. A very naturalistic actor, she presents a cool, rational woman as well as thwarted passionate one. The quality of her visible listening during the long periods in which she doesn’t speak is impressive.

Peter Prentice gives us a cold David especially after he and his wife Helen (Alix Dunmore – good) have sampled ‘The Therapy’ and been ‘cured’ of passionate excess – presented in the play as an alternative to the warmth of Ernest Dowson’s poetry to which Simpson has introduced the rather reluctant Mervyn. Yes, there are plenty of contrasts to reflect on here.

The other star of this show is Emily Stuart for her costumes. She perfectly captures that strange 1970s blend of elegance and excess. And as for the beautiful turquoise dress – big sleeves and ‘drape’ around a fitted waist worn by Mullion in Act 2 – where can I buy one?

 First published by Sardines: http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-Southwark%20Playhouse-Bodies%20-%20%E2%98%85%E2%98%85%E2%98%85%E2%98%85&reviewsID=3481
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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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