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Summerland

by on 3 July 2021

Haunting Images 

Summerland

by Arlitia Jones

Richmond Shakespeare Society, Mary Wallace Theatre until 3rd July

Review by Eleanor Marsh

Nothing can be so deceiving as a photograph

Franz Kafka

First things first.  It is wonderful to be back seeing live theatre and RSS have chosen to open with a play highly suitable for a nervous audience.  A cast of three who are rarely in close proximity to each other is a good call for the times in which we find ourselves.  And hats off to the efficient front of house team who managed the sold out (socially distanced) audience in a very firm and extremely friendly manner.

And now to the play…

A picture paints a thousand words and I have to say when I discovered the subject matter of this play was spiritualism and photography in 1869 I was surprised.  The posters and artwork at first glance looked to be of a European field and a member of the Hitler Youth.  I now realise the picture is of a confederate soldier, which does make me appear a little dim, but in my defence I must say that for some time, every reference I found to Summerland was of the film, which is set in the Second World War.

However, I fear that director Harry Medawar might have felt the same so painstaking was the attempt to set the audience in the correct time and place.  Personally I could have done without the very long music in blackout at the beginning of the play.  Much as I love both the Battle Hymn of the Republic and When Johnny Comes Marching Home, I couldn’t help think that an arrangement of the two together might have been more expedient and also given more of an idea of the mystery surrounding Mrs Mumler. Neither of these pieces of music reappeared, which was a shame as there were times when a gentle underscore of one or other of them would have added to the dramatic effect.

The elephant in the room whenever a revival or amateur production of a play is produced is the actual material.  If it is not a new play it is not the business of the reviewer to review the writing as such.  So suffice it to say, then that having done a little research on the real William and Hannah Mumler and their nemesis, Joseph Tooker and discovering that P.T. Barnum testified at their trial – for the prosecution – I was surprised that the play was not much more colourful.  Where more interesting material that is on public record could have been used, the playwright has employed predictable fictitious devices (Mumler’s son, for example) and the dialogue is repetitive.  At one point I wanted to shout “I know  – you’ve already told me!” 

The production, however rose above this mainly because of the excellent performances of the three actors who worked their socks off all evening.  Francis Abbott as Mumler was the perfect mix of “humbug” and sophisticated man about town and his playing of the final scene that mentioned his deceased son was very moving.  How I wish we’d got to the bottom of the detail of what had happened to his first wife.  By the end of the play I’d quite warmed to Mumler – a man who knew when his time was up and was able to laugh at himself.  Peter Easterbrook, another excellent actor, was gifted with a role that was underwritten to such an extent that he really had his work cut out.  In Easterbrook’s hands Joseph Tooker took on all the gravitas of truth, justice and the law with repressed emotions that became apparent only when he was pushed to the limit.  When we discovered the truth about his past and the reason for his disability, so sympathetic had been the portrayal throughout the play that despite those unpleasant revelations we still felt for him.  

The third  actor to complete the trilogy was Amanda Adams who had the tough job of creating a complex three dimensional character in half the time the others had as her first entrance was just before the interval.  And she pulled it off!  By the end of the play I genuinely did not know if she was a fake or really did have a psychic gift.  She was alternately waspish, seductive and spiteful and came across as by far the most manipulative – and intelligent – of the three characters.  Her telling of the dog story was chilling and something I’ll remember for a long time.  Mrs Mumler is not a sympathetic character at all; there really is nothing to like, but her frustration with her poor excuse for a marriage came across loud and clear and there was a little sympathy in the room for her.  In real life there appears to be no reference to her being a spy and double agent during the Civil War, whereas in the play it is the most interesting thing about her.  It is such a shame that this plotline was never fully developed; it would have given an actress of Miss Adams’ calibre something really meaty to play with.

Technically this play was a delight.  Junis Olmscheid’s set and costumes were sumptuous and the attention to detail, which included period fastenings on Mrs Mumler’s costumes was staggering.  Coupled with Marc Pierce’s effective lighting design (including flickering gas lamps and a transformation from studio to darkroom) it was a visual feast.  The sound design was also very effective.  Amelia Coffey made all the things that go bump in the night very spooky indeed and the music, although there was not much of it, was well chosen and highly evocative.

Overall this was a very strong return to live theatre in Twickenham.  RSS is back and has come back in style.  Let us hope that this first production leads to a strong, uninterrupted Summer season.

Eleanor Marsh, July 2021

Photography by Simone Sutton

2 Comments
  1. Ratlike Owlet permalink

    I’m afraid a review in which the reviewer admits her comments make her appear “a bit dim” do make it hard to take anything she says seriously

    • Hello Ratlike,

      Thank you for your comments, which are always welcome.

      Re-reading Eleanor Lewis’ review of Summerland, it is clear that she is expressing the difficulty of recognising a uniform from a foreign army of 160 years ago.

      Grateful if you could expand on what the other things were that you found hard to take seriously, and we would be very happy to comment on them.

      Kinde regards

      Keith Wait
      Editor, Mark Aspen Reviews

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