Ladies In Lavender (review)

Hayley Mills and Robert Rees in Ladies In Lavender.
Hayley Mills and Robert Rees in Ladies In Lavender.

THE career of actress Hayley Mills seemingly came full circle last night. Earlier in the day she appeared on TV in her mum’s 1961 film, Whistle Down The Wind, where, as a naïve 15-year-old, the wide-eyed English rose finds a wounded stranger who she mistakes for the son of God.

Last night she revisited the part when she delighted the first night audience at the Royal & Derngate playing a naïve old maid who loses her heart to a young wounded stranger who she likens to a Greek god.

Ladies In Lavender first came to the public’s attention when actor Charles Dance discovered William J.Locke’s charming short story and wrote a screenplay that he eventually turned into a film starring Judy Dench and Maggie Smith.

Now the story of two spinster sisters vying for the attention of a young Polish violinist in 1930s Cornwall, has been lovingly adapted for the stage by Shaun McKenna and what a great job he has made of it.

The two sisters, Janet and Ursula Widdington, live a cloistered existence in a remote fishing village, untouched by the outside world save for radio broadcasts about the impending threat from a “funny little man with a moustache in Germany.”

Janet’s one true love, Peter, was killed in The Great War, and Ursula doesn’t appear to have ever been in a relationship with a man. They live quietly in a stone cottage by the sea where the biggest decision in their lives is whether to stretch to a biscuit with their nightly cocoa.

Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Ursula spots a man washed up on the beach. The pair rescues him and nurses him back to health, both falling in love, in their own way, with inevitable consequences.

We first meet the elderly sisters late at night and, for that first scene in the half-light, the former child-star appears to have barely aged, her face smooth, her luxurious blonde hair tumbling around her slim shoulders, her voice still sounding soft and girlish, just perfect for Ursula’s child-like innocence.

In contrast Belinda Lang has got the unenviable task of dressing down to play the prim and priggish Janet who, while she doesn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve in the same way as her younger sister, is nevertheless thrilled to be having a man to stay.

Lang’s Janet is waspish, plain and scholarly, and completely at odds with her exuberant and imaginative sister – yet they fit perfectly together almost as a married couple.

Sharing their lives, and providing the play with most of its laugh-out-loud humour, is Carol Macready’s cook-come-housekeeper, Dorcas, a plump, salt-of-the-earth type who gets the best lines and Drop The Dead Donkey’s Robert Duncan as the village quack.

As a widower he’s about as sexually frustrated as the sisters but his attempts at courting a foreign tourist (Abigail Thaw as a mysterious and aloof Russian) with a bloater paste sandwich fails miserably.

Robert Rees, as the stranger Andrea, has little to do but seem enigmatic, Polish, and musical. He achieves the first two but it would have been nice to have cast an actor who could possibly play the violin rather than have someone mime badly to the act.

This is a wonderfully warm little play that benefits from having some top class talent in the cast. My only criticism was that the ending was rather strained on both the actors on stage and the audience.

*On April 26 Hayley Mills and Belinda Lang will be talking about their careers during an “In Conversation with..” session starting at 5.30pm. There’s also an opportunity to enjoy a delicious Cornish cream tea before the event!

Ladies In Lavender runs on the Royal stage until April 28 before embarking on a brief national tour. For tickets to either the show or the pre-show event call the box office 01604 624811 or go online www.royalandderngate.co.uk

ANNE COX