5 April 2013

Vanessa and Virginia at the Riverside

I am managing to see a lot of really good theatre at the moment and Vanessa & Virginia is right up there with the very best. It's amazing.

I went in with my eyes wide open as usual, that is I had no idea what I was going to see and had made little effort to find out. I had, of course, heard of Virginia Wolf though I knew little of her life and had read none of her books. That she had an older sister called Vanessa was news to me.

Vanessa & Virginia tells their story from being young girls in the 1890s through to Virginia's death in 1941.

The play seems to show mostly bad things in their lives but that may just be because their lives had mostly bad things in them. There are bright points too with some childish playing, loves and sibling gossip.

From what I have said so far you might have guessed that this is a demanding play for just two female actors, and it is. They have to age fifty years in ninety minutes without the assistance of a make-up break and they have to experience a wide range of deep emotions.

The two actresses are superb. Kitty Randle leads the way as the older Vanessa and she is more than ably supported by Alice Frankham.

The story is told through Vanessa's eyes. She narrates sections of the story to the audience and we get Virginia's story through her conversations with Vanessa. It is an effective storytelling technique, and this play is all about the story.

It is Vanessa that we meet first and she is gently walking the stage as we enter.

Having the cast in position before the audience comes in is one of the four current theatre fashions. Another one used here is to not have an interval. I was happy to see the other two excluded as these are smoking and nudity.

It is an old Vanessa that we meet but once we are settled in our seats a quick shedding out outer-garments and a sudden change in dynamism presents us with a young girl who is joined by her younger sister and their story begins.

Their story is incredibly dramatic and is punctuated with abuse, failed relationships, complex relationships, homosexual relationships, deaths and attempted deaths. There is poetry and painting too but it is the dark moments that force the story forward. The sisters argue at times but they always remain close enough to share what they were feeling and it was though this that we hear the story.

The stage design is simple yet easily covers all the ages, moods and scenes that it has to. A lot of this is down to the acting so, for example, when Vanessa tells us that she is walking in to a river we do not need to see a river to believe here.

The main props are the clothes that are used to show the ages of the women and the situations that they are in. A few other props are used and these are among the articles hanging over the stage. It works very well and means that props can be delivered without a break and without needing somebody else to bring them on to stage.

There is music too and, like good theatre music should, this hangs around the stage invisibly so that you are unaware that it is helping to manipulate your emotions.

Everything about Vanessa & Virginia is simple and works because of its simplicity. Nothing gets in the way of the story or of our relationship with the story-tellers. It is beautiful.

After a performance like that I wanted to thank the cast personally and loitering around the ladies loo long enough meant that I could grab a quick word with Kitty to try and say how much I had enjoyed the play. I don't think I said it very well, and I'm not sure that I have done much better now, but I hope that I have done enough to explain to her, and to you, just why this play delighted me so much.

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