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The Old Ladies
Royal George Theatre
By Rodney Ackland, 1935
Directed by James MacDonald

Play summary | Globe and Mail review

From the program:

The play takes place in an old house in the fictional English city of Polchester. There are three tenants in the house, including a white-haired lady named Miss Beringer who moved in just yesterday. Although she has a rather nervous personality, she is befriended by a kindly neighbour named Mrs Amorest. Soon, however, she meets the third tenant, a woman of gypsy heritage who has a strange manner of dealing with people. Although it is the morning of Christmas Eve, the mood in the house soon turns ominous, despite Mrs Amorest's best efforts to foster a festive spirit.

The play, which premiered in London in April 1935, was adapted from a novel by Hugh Walpole that was published a decade earlier. The stage adaptation was written by Rodney Ackland (1908-91), an actor and playwright whose other dramatic works included adaptations of novels by Ostrovsky and Marcel Proust.

The Globe and Mail's review:

An old play, aging badly
Friday, May 24, 2002 Print Edition, Page R11

Rating: **

Shaw Festival artistic director Christopher Newton spends a lot of time rummaging through dusty corners of late 19th- and early 20th-century dramatic literature. Sometimes he unearths a gem, such as last season's tragicomic The Return of the Prodigal, which the festival is now reviving.

And sometimes he brings out some weird little play that you really wish he had left where he had found. Such is The Old Ladies, a sadistic gothic number that is posing as the festival's annual thriller in the Royal George Theatre, where it opened Wednesday.

The play was adapted by dramatist Rodney Ackland from a 1924 novel of the same title written by Hugh Walpole, one of the most popular British writers of his day but now largely forgotten. Set in a rooming house in the fictional cathedral town of Polchester, it turns around the bizarre relationship between two elderly English ladies and their mysterious, fortunetelling housemate.

Lucy Amorest (Donna Belleville) is the sensible and kindhearted leader of the trio, trying to convince the anxious and silly newcomer May Beringer (Wendy Thatcher) that the grumpy and glaring Agatha Payne (Maria Vacratsis) doesn't really mean any harm. Except that she does: When Agatha gets sight of May's prized amber statuette, she goes about spooking her increasingly terrified housemate in hopes of seizing it.

There is an interesting degree of realism to the ladies' claustrophobia and desperation: All three are nearly destitute, and May's hopes of "finding a position" seem as faint as Lucy's dream that her long-lost son will return to her from America. Ackland also offers a healthy amount of character study in revealing the genteel pasts and grim presents of this pair. And then there's Agatha, who is wicked simply because she is the villain and incomprehensible because she a) may be Roman Catholic; b) may be descended from Gypsies; or c) may not be right in the head.

The thriller is, by its very nature, manipulative, but its success lies in disguising its game: Here you can almost hear Ackland's cries of delight as he tightens the rack. Similarly, the horror genre exorcises the audience's demons by drawing them willingly into a séance. Here, in a play first staged in the midst of the Depression, Ackland confronts the insecure women of the embattled British middle class with their fear of the exotic other. In 1935, they must have been shrieking in their seats.

What are we to make of this play in a different time and place? James MacDonald directs with a touch of irony -- the looming figure, the long pause, the ghastly light -- that he occasionally pushes too far. Certainly, he should have reined in Vacratsis's grotesque rendition of Agatha as a grimacing, shuffling thing almost animal-like in her movements.

He also might have considered whether Thatcher's sweetly fluttering Beringer might have been made more annoying in her nervousness, so as to give more justification for Agatha's instant dislike. It falls to a solid Belleville to anchor the action just as Lucy stabilizes this increasingly unstable ménage.

Of course, Vacratsis, whom the makeup department has rendered truly ugly, is supposed initially to be funny and that's one way you can deal with the play: Laugh it off as a previous generation's genre work. Another approach is to analyze Ackland's exploitation of the fear of the outsider, which English professor Alan Ackerman does with great success in his program essay. He deconstructs Agatha's symbolism for the hard-pressed English ladies represented by Lucy and May, and points out that as the child of an impoverished part-Jewish family always on the move from one rooming house to another, Ackland was particularly well situated to understand these tensions.

But analyzing this document of British xenophobia is quite a different matter from suffering through its revival as entertainment. It may be the kind of piece that leaves you sleeping with the light on, but only after you have had a good hot shower.

The Old Ladies runs at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., until Oct. 27. For information call: 1-800-511-7429.

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