Review – We Happy Few

April 27, 2012 | By More

✭✭★✩✩

Hetty (Hilary Davies) and Flora (Hazel Eadie) in Arkle's production of We Happy Few. Photo © Chris Close

Hetty (Hilary Davies) and Flora (Hazel Eadie) in Arkle's production of We Happy Few. Photo © Chris Close

Lauriston Hall

Review by Thom Dibdin

Arkle Theatre company have chosen a thoroughly meaty and wholesome piece of drama in Imogen Stubbs’ We Happy Few, which is at the Lauriston Hall until Saturday night.

Meaty, because there is much of substance in its story of a group of women who form a theatre company to take Shakespeare out to the provinces during WW2.

Here we have strongly put arguments for culture in general – and theatre in particular – in times of crisis. And plenty of bigging up of Shakespeare just in time for all the World Shakespeare Festival shenanigans. Indeed, the production is part of the RSC’s Open Stages initiative.

The title is a quote from the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V, the big rallying cry as the outnumbered English are about to face the French in battle: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”

Wholesome, because it builds on the tale of how the unlikely duo of Hetty (Hilary Davies) and Flora (Hazel Eadie) decide to do their bit for the war effort. Upper-class spinsters of certain age, they are ripe for taking on something that proves they are equal to any man.

Davies and Eadie are both in excellent form as these rather tweedy ladies. Davies quickly conveys how driven Hetty is, without ever overplaying it but letting that underlying nature push her and force her actions over the course of the play.

Eadie has the more fun as the outspoken Flora, large in size and in her manner. Bumbling along and not quite getting things right, she is always looking out for her friend and you know that behind the bluff exterior Eadie has created, Flora is masking a level of sorrow.

And as they set out to find their band of players, seven in all, the rest of the company move into focus to take their places.

Stubbs just doesn’t know when to stop

Although this is based on reality – the Osiris Players were founded in 1927 by the “indomitable director, Nancy Hewins” – Stubbs just doesn’t know when to stop in her fictionalisation of their lives.

If one of the actresses has a hang-up, then they all have to have one. And instead of weaving her point subtly through the tale of these quirky, fascinating women, Stubbs has laid it on far too thick. Actively hanging the whole piece around the St. Crispin’s Day speech is a fair enough device, but you do need a modicum of subtlety about it.

There are some lovely little performances as the troupe comes together. Elaine Graham is particularly memorable as Ivy, the maid in service who can’t help but drop all the crockery but who sings like an angel. Bronagh Finlay is firm and believable as the tomboy Charlotte, while Sheila Moncur has a whale of a time as scatty old Jocelyn who can’t sing or dance but just won’t go away.

Yet even here you long for some self-discipline from Stubbs. Director Val Lennie does a good job with a very basic set and not too much to-ing and fro-ing in the quick-fire scene changes, but even she can’t stop you wishing that the play could just cut to a montage of them getting the band together.

The outcome is that the meat of it turns tough and inedible while all that wholesome argument just makes you sigh and hope for something less cliched.

The company do a grand job with what is not the best material. They move easily from sincerely heartfelt drama to outrageous depiction of the troupe in action. But at three hours it is far too long, although they still succeed in finessing the final scene with a truly tear-inducing moment.

Running time: 3 hours
Run ends Saturday 28 April 2012
Shows: daily 7.30pm
Arkle Theatre Company Website: www.arkletheatre.co.uk

The Guardian feature on the theatre company which inspired the play: www.guardian.co.uk

ENDS

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