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Plenty (Susan Elkin reviews)

Plenty – ★★★★
By David Hare.
society/company: Chichester Festival Theatre
performance date: 07 Jun 2019
venue: Festival Theatre, Chichester

Rachael Stirling (left) as Susan Traherne & members of the company in PLENTY at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard


This revival of David Hare’s 1978 play, under Kate Hewitt’s direction, yearns and compels. And if it seems a tiny bit drawn out in places, it’s a minor gripe.

Hare examines the long term after effects of being parachuted into France in the 1940s as part of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). Many of these men and women, acting as secret agents and couriers, died terribly but some, like Hare’s fictional Susan Traherne, survived.

As Susan, Rachael Stirling is treading in illustrious footsteps. Most of the actors who have played Traherne in the past – Kate Nelligan, Cate Blanchett, Hattie Morahan, Rachel Weisz and Meryl Streep (in the 1985 film) for instance – have won plaudits, accolades and awards. Stirling probably will too. It’s a terrific role in which she shifts mercurially from hauteur to anguish and from manic fury to desperate dispirited sadness. And her speaking voice, pitch, register and range is as varied as a coloratura soprano. It’s an outstanding, beautifully judged depiction of a woman – across 20 years of her life with lots of time shifts backwards and forwards – whose mental health is brittle at best. Occasionally Stirling is agonisingly funny too.

The support cast is strong. Yolanda Kettle convincingly develops Alice, Susan’s friend, over twenty years from a tearaway young spirit, painting a naked girl as an oak tree for a fancy dress party, to someone who teaches a bit and runs a charity for unmarried mothers. Rory Keenan is good as Susan’s long suffering diplomat husband, Brock, especially in Act 2 when he finally lets rip and we see the suffering his marriage has really led to. Anthony Calf as Darwin, Brock’s boss, is outrageous, larger than life and chilling, especially during the Suez Crisis.

An ensemble cast of ten between them play all the minor roles and, rather neatly and engagingly, act as stage hands whizzing scenery and props on and off. That, along with Giles Thomas’s powerful music and sound and Georgia Lowe’s rather fabulous set give the whole piece an evocative edge. I loved, for example, the huge upstage, very fluid ribbon curtain which doubles as a projection screen for lots of evocative black and white images and through which items of furniture are pushed. And the whole playing area is floored in glass quasi-rostra so that it shines and reflects – a metaphor, perhaps, for Traherne’s troubled, self-aware life.

Philippe Edwards, Rachael Stirling & Nick Sampson in PLENTY at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard

 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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