On Golden Pond

Nov 21 2019 | By More

★★★☆☆    Crystal clear

Church Hill Theatre: Wed 20 – Sat 23 Nov 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

Leitheatre’s production of On Golden Pond at the Church Hill is a warm and emotional evocation of family struggles and satisfactions that rarely ignites but is performed with diligence and grace.

Ernest Thompson’s 1979 play is probably best known from its 1981 film version featuring Katharine Hepburn and a double helping of Fondas, but the drama has had a considerable life of its own over the years.

Mike Paton, Billy Renfrew, Alison Kennedy, Callum McMaster, and Lynne Morris. Pic: Marion Donohoe.

Necessarily more limited in setting and action than the film adaptation, the play’s story – of the Thayers, an ageing couple at their lakeside summer house in Maine, their distant daughter and various others – has a definite charm and recognisable family relationships.

There are clear and obvious problems with the play; the emotion tends towards sentimentality, resolutions seem too easily won and the constant drip of characters telling each other things they already know is only partially explained by father Norman’s increasing dementia-induced forgetfulness.

It is also one of those plays where the length seems entirely arbitrary, as little really happens. Some of the attitudes on display, moreover, may have been (barely) acceptable in the 70s but are now horribly out of place – it is difficult to feel much sympathy for someone like Norman whose supposed cynicism is really just bigotry; his racism and antisemitism are matched only by his sexism and homophobia.

potters along

This has the effect of making something that it is intended to be feel-good and treacly altogether more difficult to stomach. So congratulations to director Phyllis Ross and the cast for fashioning a production that is so acceptable, even if it potters along rather than speeds by.

Mike Paton and Callum McMaster. Pic Marion Donohoe

Central to its success is the depiction of the curmudgeonly Norman and his long-suffering, unaccountably devoted wife Ethel. Mike Paton’s Norman is a tetchily unfulfilled figure, whose increasing loss of self due to his condition is horribly believable. Meanwhile, Alison Kennedy’s Ethel is an excellent performance, beautifully rounded and absolutely human.

Both of them also carry off the accents very well, although a determination to get it right leads at times to an over-enunciation that slows down even further what is already a very stately production.

Other performers adopt a more hit-and-miss approach to the voices which may not be as convincing but does give the piece more energy. Tim Foley’s mailman Charlie, for example, never quite touches down definitively in mainland USA, but is otherwise very fine, notably in his depiction of the character’s uncontrollable laughter.

brittle disappointment

Lynne Morris gives the Thayers’ daughter Chelsea an air of brittle disappointment that is highly appropriate, while Billy Renfrew (her partner Bill) displays a fine line in exasperation at Norman’s best attempts to mess with his head.

Callum McMaster, meanwhile, gives Billy, Bill’s 13-year-old son and the Thayers’ unexpected house guest, real energy and drive. Debs Barrie’s unseen turn as the telephone operator is also well judged.

There is a pleasing solidity to Derek Blackwood’s set that helps root the production in reality. The technical side of it is also well handled, even if the overall effect is prose rather than poetry. While the production never really soars, there is a grounded element to its depiction of ageing and family dynamics that helps it ring true.

Running time 2 hours 10 minutes including one interval
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Wednesday 20 – Saturday 23 November 2019
Wed – Fri at 7.30 pm; Matinee Sat at 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: Book here.
Leitheatre website: https://www.leitheatre.com/
Facebook: @Leitheatre
Twitter: @LeitheatreEdin

Tim Foley, Mike Paton and Alison Kennedy. Pic Marion Donohoe


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