This Court Theatre production in Christchurch, New Zealand has Yvonne Martin in the Dench role of Frances Beale, a wife and mother whose latter-day attentions have turned to popular writing after her husband walked out on her. She discovers the existance and whereabouts of her husband’s long-time mistress Madeleine Palmer (Toni Jones), a retired curator, sometime activist and acerbic academic now living in isolation on the Isle of Wight. Determined to find answers to her very many questions about her marriage, Frances visits Madeleine on her home turf. The two women soon begin to pick over their relationships with the same man.
An intimate and functional set helps to convince the audience that it is party to the goings-on in Madeleine’s flat, while the costumes emphasise the difference between the housewife and the dreamer, the settled and the flighty. The script provides the odd moment or two of amusement as the two recall the qualities – and failings – of the man known to them both. Amongst the issues aired are whether being a wife and mother adds up to anything as a life – a topical theme in an age where working mothers are the norm rather than the exception. The play also examines whether marriage makes perfect, and whether remaining single is any the better. Yet it all adds up to… remarkably little.
Jones, who quite looks the part of the activist, down to her short-cropped hair and vaguely Asian clothing, has long periods of inactivity where she seems to stick to the idea that any movement in theatre must be premeditated – which gives her reactions to Frances’ tearful speeches a sense of unreality, of weariness even. At no point is anything spontaneous or involving. Martin, meanwhile, convinces only as some contemporary dowager duchess, her every word enunciated to the point of Shakespearean farce. She’d be an excellent Lady Bracknell some day – indeed Dench, who created the role on stage, has played the famed Wildean dragoness. What she clearly is not is an ordinary housewife from Blackheath, south-east-London, with pretentions to being a popular novelist. Yet much of the failing here is down to Hare’s lines rather than anything Martin does wrong. This woman simply doesn’t sound like who she’s meant to be. Her lines sound plummy. We wait for a twist in the tale that would explain them, but it never comes.
Hare’s subject, however, is the single biggest bane. Choosing to examine the effects of a love triangle, he could have allowed the characters to exist outside of the effects created by their mate. Instead we are left with a deflated sense that the man runs everything, that the world revolves around him and that women are rather secondary beings capable of existing only at his say-so. It’s depressing and not a little pathetic.