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Clouded by a curiously flat romantic comedy



Review by David Munro

THE first question which springs to mind on viewing this touring production of Michael Frayn’s Clouds is why anyone thought it worthwhile reviving a polemical play grounded in the 1970s and, having arrived at that decision, gave the leads to two young actors who could hardly have been born at the date of the play and who, talented as they may be, have no feel for the period or its nuances.

First produced in 1976, at the Hampstead Theatre, with Nigel Hawthorne and Barbara Ferris, and then revived two years later at the Duke of York’s, with Tom Courteney and Felicity Kendal, it sets out to show the effect which Cuba under Castro has on two writers who are sent out by leading Sunday papers to do an in-depth article on the country and the effects of the regime.

Mara (Tara Fitzgerald) is a romantic novelist, while Owen is a professional journalist.

Their initial mutual antagonism turns into a romantic attraction brought on by their proximity and the laisser faire attitude of the country and its inhabitants.

They go on a tour of the Island accompanied by an enigmatic American-Cuban, Ed (Rolfe Saxon), a guide/interpreter, Angel (Darrell d’Silva and a Chauffeur (Ewen Cummings), which gives the author an excuse to expound on the various aspects of a totalitarian State.

Mara’s presence acts as a catalyst on the men and the play ends with the aftermath of a fight between Owen, Ed and Angel with Mara extolling the beauties and joys of existence and Cuba.

Most of the play comprises set scenes where the characters discuss themselves, each other, the state of the country and Life.

The examination of a country under a dictatorship is not a new theme for a play but Frayn did not appear to have had, in 1976, the craft to carry it off and make it either real or dramatically effective.

There are a lot of funny lines and there appeared to be more humour in the play than was brought out by the performances or the production.

The play is described as a romantic comedy, so he must have intended it to be an amusing commentary on Cuba at the time, an intention not fulfilled from what I saw on the stage last night.

The flaws in the writing and construction of the play are not helped by the direction of Jennie Darrall, who grouped the characters about the stage which her designer, Mathew Wright, had flanked with a low wall, which served as a good place for her to deposit those not actually speaking.

She never seemed to inspire her actors to come to life and it was as though she felt the words were more important than the action.

The result was a lot of individual speeches, which gave the actors a chance to demonstrate their skills, but killed any dramatic impetus which Frayn may have intended.

It was like watching a workshop / audition for a play and not a play itself.

This impression might have been dispelled had the performers given their speeches or scenes any semblance of reality.

Lloyd Owen has a good presence and an ability to deliver his lines with conviction. Unfortunately, this ability only was exercised on few occasions as, for the most part of the evening, he delivered his lines forcibly but flatly killing any humour or humanity in his character.

Tara Fitzgerald gave an impression of what her part must have been like when played by Felicity Kendal; archly, breathlessly and twittery in emotional scenes.

She failed to impress with her final rodomontade on the pleasure of Cuba and life which seemed to go on forever and without much point.

It was a performance by a good actress schooled in drama but, as yet, unable to adjust herself to the dramatic usages of lighter material.

I wish a fire in Richmond Theatre had not prevented me from seeing her complete performance as Nora in The Doll's House. What I did see of it, makes me feel she was better suited to that part than Mara.

The other three men were mouthpieces for Frayn’s views on Cuba in particular and life under a dictatorship in general.

The semi-sophisticated 'new' Cuban, with his veneer of American culture who sees only benefits of the new system and condescendingly joins in with the workers to show his spirit of democracy, is a stock character in any culture.

As played by Rolf Saxon one recognised the insincerity of the academic 'Hampstead' socialist even if the character is now somewhat outmoded.

The writing seemed to indicate there was more to this character than just that, but whatever it was Mr Saxon failed to share it with the audience.

Angel was the stereotyped middle-class man who had a comfortable background before Castro and was now forced to work in, and accept, a culture alien to him. Darrell D’Silva, although inaudible at times, did what he could with the part, although without ever quite convincing me he believed in it.

The hedonistic Chauffeur, with a girl in every town, was clearly introduced for light relief and local colour and, as such, Ewen Cummins coped adequately.

However well, or badly, the parts were portrayed, the actors seemed to be performing in a vacuum with no real resolution and it was, for me, a frustrating and unfulfilled evening.

Interesting as a historical curiosity but when I want to be bored by antiquities I go to a museum, not the theatre.

Clouds by Michael Frayn. Directed by Jennie Darnell; Designer, Mathew Wright; Lighting, Tim Mitchell; Sound, Fergus O’Hare.
CAST: Tara Fitzgerald; Lloyd Owen; Daniel D’Silva; Rolf Saxon; Ewen Cummins.
Presented by Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 IQJ.
Mon, Nov 8 – Sat, Nov 13, 2004
Evenings: 7.45pm / Matinees: Wed & Sat 2.30pm.
Box Office: 020 8940 0088.

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