January is Open Season for gossip in the gardens! Following his successful 2017 season of Sense and Sensibility in garden locations, clever director Dave Simms (Blue Sky Theatre) this year re-imagines Sheridan’s 18th century comedy of manners in the exuberant primary colours and tabloid-fed rumour-mills of 1950’s London.
I saw the opening performance in the gardens of Crozier Hill, Lower Inman Valley. It’s just outside Victor Harbor, where hordes of holidaymakers are already enjoying trams, penguins, Granite Island, and those Norfolk Island pines, while anticipating Stage 3 of the Tour Down Under. A Pimm’s and a picnic hamper on the lawns of a glorious garden, followed by a spot of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, is just the right recipe for discerning tourist and canny local alike.
In defiance of the production company’s name, an overcast sky threatened rain, but never delivered. Though sorely testing the nerve of the presenters, the weather provided a near-perfect outdoor setting, with established eucalypts and bulrushes forming an idyllic stage backdrop.
While the natural setting is spectacular, the design elements of this production are so thoughtfully contrived and strongly executed that the characters all look as if they belong within the landscape. Men’s suits are sharply tailored MadMen style, in a brilliant colour palette ranging from conservative mid-blue through to screaming fuschia. The women’s costumes instantly put me in mind of Butterick and Vogue patterns. Every 50’s trope is present in just the right fabric: un-pressed pleats, inverted pleats, bias-cut skirts, dropped shoulders, godets, shirtwaisters, contrast facings, full-circle coin-spot skirts (with obligatory petticoats). Director Simms and his costume team, headed by Rob Andrewartha, have pulled out all the stops and given us a visual feast. And oh, the hats! Each costume enhances the actor’s task.
Sheridan’s story updates to the London of 1955 very neatly, thanks to Simms’s judicious textual tweaks. While updated language makes the play instantly accessible to contemporary ears, it sometimes lacks the crafted barb and snide felicity of Sheridan’s original. (I confess a personal bias here; I also like the BCP and the 1666 Authorised Version.)
The story is about gossip, hypocrisy, greed, the playboy lifestyle, deception, celebrity couples, infidelity and an opportunistic politician. In short, the plot is as fresh as a Trump tweet, and just as tacky. Filthy-rich Sir Oliver comes back from years of living in the East Indies and wants to know whether his two nephews deserve to inherit his wealth. The two nephews, Charles and Joseph, both fancy Maria. Sir Peter Teazle has just married a very young woman from the country, after living as a confirmed bachelor for years. Lady Sneerwell takes an active delight in inventing gossip when facts are in short supply. In this she is aided by her assistant, Miss Snake, the gossip columnist Ben Backbite, and Olympian scandalmonger, Mrs Candour. Stir vigorously with a celery stick and serve.
Working in an open-air environment is extra-taxing for every aspect of an actor’s craft, and in this production, all members of the ensemble bring spirited physical and vocal energy, relating the tale with evident relish. From the male actors, both Robert Bell (as charismatic playboy Charles Surface) and Joshua Coldwell (in the two roles of blatant Ben Backbite and canny cockney Tally) take equal first prize for clarity, lively energy, and intelligent collaboration with their colleagues. Exemplary among the ladies of the cast was Nicole Rutty, who not only delivered an imperious Lady Sneerwell, complete with a hatful of terrifying purple feathers, but with equal felicity did asinine good-time girlie, Gloria Tripp. Ashley Penny worked beautifully in the thankless role of Maria; her ancillary role as the maid permitted her to have more fun and show her range of skills. Angela Short plays the obnoxious Mrs Candour whilst wearing on her head a millinery approximation of a dinner-plate, balanced askew across an embroidered cap, with cabbage roses jammed into the gap. Short is consistent, clear, and as vigorously vile as you’d like. Lindy LeCornu, costumed immaculately in dusky mauve embroidered linen, brings warmth and common sense as loveable Nanny Rowley. Sir Peter Teazle is beautifully played by Steve Marvanek. In a role which would tempt a lesser actor to caricature, he is by turns blustery, sentimental and quietly confused; his skill is to make us care for this older gent with a pert young wife. Kate Van Der Horst, as his young wife from the country, has been saddled with a lower-class accent which, in my opinion, tended to impede some of Sheridan’s finer satirical shafts. Despite the accent choice, Van Der Horst makes a fine and fearless Lady Teazle. She is an excellent young actor whose craft is evident. As politician Joseph Surface, Lee Cook gives hypocrisy a bad name; he’s the sanctimonious prat you love to hate. As Bobby Bumper, the very same Lee Cook is a laddish Hooray Henry. It’s a lovely double, and he executes both deftly. Miriam Keane also evidently enjoys the diversity of her two contrasting roles, as the cunning Miss Snake and the cheerfully sloshed Cindy Careless. Disclaimer: since I share an electricity bill with Adrian Barnes, the actor who performs Sir Oliver Surface, I am unable to comment on his performance.
In short, it’s splendid fun, sparklingly directed. This show is excellent value, and cause sufficient for me to hope that the collaboration between Open Gardens SA and Blue Sky Theatre Productions will continue to give us bucolic theatrical joy well into the future.
Review by Pat. H. Wilson