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A Day by the Sea (Susan Elkin reviews)

It’s 1953. War widow, Frances Farrar (Alix Dunmore) has just divorced her second husband and has returned, with her children, for a holiday with her adoptive mother, Laura Anson (Susan Tracy) at the country house she grew up in. There are tensions between Frances and Laura’s son, Julian (John Sackville) and the rest of the household simmers with back stories which are gradually unrolled. It’s beautifully written, nicely observed, often witty and very compelling in the hands of director, Tricia Thorns and her cast. Hunter was very highly regarded in the early fifties and this play ran for two years at the Haymarket with John Gielgud (who also directed), Sybil Thorndyke, Lewis Casson, Ralph Richardson and Irene Worth in the cast. So why have there been so few revivals? Perhaps this production will start a trend.

Tall, willowy elegant Alix Dunmore is excellent at the unhappy Frances. She is bitterly brittle but also manages urbane chat in a voice which is spot on for the 1950s – let’s call it semi-heightened RP. And she looks fabulous in her 1950s clothes (costume design Emily Stuart). The matching hat, gloves and bag are a perfect touch. There’s fine Felicity Kendal-esque work from Susan Tracy too, She’s warm, kind, exasperated, intolerant and used to being in charge with a mannered speech mode which never quite sounds natural – I had friends whose Grannies were exactly like that in the 1950s.

David Acton enjoys himself as the outrageous, drunk, resident doctor who evokes as much sympathy – he has messed up his life – as disapproval. Stephanie Willson turns in a pleasing performance as the frumpy, 35-year-old nanny trying, in calculated desperation, to snatch at what she sees as her only chance of avoiding permanent spinsterhood. And John Sackville delights as the up-tight diplomat especially in the second half when his circumstances change. The long scene between him and Dunmore is a good example of finely judged duologue.

This is quite a big play – a cast of ten including the two children – but it sits quite neatly in the small playing space at Southwark Playhouse configured conventionally with a quasi fourth wall and a stage left entrance beside the auditorium. Alex Marker’s set – two garden scenes and two on the beach – is suitably atmospheric and there’s some nifty and well managed shifting by cast members between scenes.

I was told before I saw this play that some people regarded Hunter as the English Chekhov. Well no, not quite that. More like Jane Austen spliced with Tennessee Williams. It would make a good film.

First published by Sardines


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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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