Note-perfect Bowles rescues Our Song from its flat premise

Review by David Munro

MY OLD Aunt used to describe a certain type of theatrical entertainment that was not demanding on the intellect, nor emotions; which was reasonably, nay even, well acted and passed away the evening pleasantly as 'just another play'.

Well, that is a just description for Our Song. Peter Bowles, Caroline Langrishe and Charlotte Emmerson, playing husband, wife and 'other woman' respectively, do pass away the evening pleasingly, even though the play itself doesn't amount to much.

The plot concerns a middle-aged advertising executive who suffers a mid-life crisis and falls for a flighty and rather fey young woman in a bistro and loses his job, and self-esteem, as a result. His wife is 'there for him', to offer comfort, and the play's few funny lines. A role which Caroline Langrishe wears with distinction, and who succeeds in making you forget what a dull stereotype the part is.

As the fabric of the plot is, to put it politely, rather threadbare, the author, Keith Waterhouse, tries to cover this up by having Peter Bowles retell the story of his obsessive infatuation as a recital of the contents of a letter he is writing to his paramour, who is, as we subsequently discover, dead when the curtain rises.

This enables him, Mr Waterhouse that is, to have all the characters on the stage at one and the same time, when the action palls, as it frequently does, and for Peter Bowles to carry on a dialogue with his wife and mistress simultaneously, commenting on whatever plot situation is current at that particular time.

A coup de Theatre (or should one say a coup de foudre) which requires a consummate actor to carry it off and, luckily for the audience and Mr Waterhouse, Peter Bowles is there to save the day and the play (also simultaneously).

He conveys, with conviction, a charming, if feckless man, who delights in his obsession, which turns him from a dapper executive into, as he describes himself, 'a seedy little man in a crumpled suit'.

He gives his scenes of jealous interrogation of Charlotte Emmerson (of which there are far too many) a dramatic conviction that really belongs to a better and more worthwhile play. Yet he does not destroy the balance of these scenes, possibly because Charlotte Emmerson ably matches him dramatically and creates a character, which makes his outbursts credible.

She is clearly meant to be a latter day Holly Golightly - and this is signalled very clumsily early in the play by a reference to Breakfast at Tiffanys. Her final confrontation with the Peter Bowles' character, where she gives him his conge and at the same time avows her real love for him, is both moving and effective.

Up until then, she had emphasised the enigmatic and rather fey side of the character, allowing the audience to side with Peter Bowles in believing she has led him a dance, for what she can get out of him, regardless of her protestations to the contrary. But despite this, she manages to make her final declaration of love and rejection credible and moving; justifying the fact that she received the lion's share of applause at the final curtain.

The other members of the cast - David Firth, as Peter Bowles' partner; Rupert Baker, as the wife's part-time lover; Sarah-Jayne Steed and James Pearse, as Charlotte Emmerson's room-mate and a Maitre D' respectively - move around the three protagonists, pushing the plot along as effectively as is possible. It is a credit to them that they do not obtrude and appear to fit in to the action credibly when required.

Tim Goodchild's off-white open plan set included a kitchen, bedroom and centre stage acting area that became a bar and park or anywhere else called for by the fragmented nature of the play, allowing the action to run smoothly and swiftly.

Ned Sherrin's direction gave the actors the freedom to 'do their bit', although he appeared to believe with Marie Lloyd (whose theatrical life he has also directed) that every little movement has a meaning of its own, which was unfortunate, as for two thirds of the play, there was too much movement with too little meaning.

It was not until he allowed Mr Bowles and Ms Emmerson to hammer out their differences statically that the stillness which pervaded their scenes effectively underwrote the dramatic content of their relationship.

In short, Our Song is a dramatic chansonette, which is here today and gone tomorrow but will never, I am afraid, make the hit parade [charts], pleasant as it may seem at the time.

Our Song, at Richmond Theatre. CAST. Peter Bowles; Caroline Langrishe; Charlotte Emerson; David Firth; Sarah-Jayne Steed; Rupert Baker; James Pearse. Author: Keith Waterhouse; Director: Ned Sherrin; Set Designer: Tim Goodchild; Costume Designer: Sarah-Jane McClelland; Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick; Sound Designer: Tom Lishman.