The stage play of Ladies in Lavender is based on Charles Dance’s screenplay for the film of the same name, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, the story of Janet and Ursula Widdington’s discovery of a young man washed up on the Cornish beach near their home, and Ursula’s doomed love for him.
Under the skilled direction of Gwen Stevens, the Apollo Players’ production expands that premise to encompass the disappointed romances of most of the main characters. While Ursula feels that the young Andrea is her only chance of experiencing romantic love, her more practical sister Janet recalls the lost love of her life, her fiancé Peter, killed in World War I.
Poised between the two world wars, the play also explores the damage done to ordinary families by such conflicts and is thus relevant even today in a world where sadly war still exists. Alongside the loss of Peter, which we understand condemned Janet to a spinster life caring for her sister rather than her own family, family physician Dr Mead foresees the coming conflict and the sisters speculate that Andrea himself could become a soldier, leading to the thought that all the military men killed in wars are ordinary, nice people with families who grieve their loss.
When Andrea is first rescued from the shipwreck that leaves him injured, he is cared for by the sisters and their housekeeper Dorcas almost as if he is a son of the house, and we have the impression that Janet at least sees him as the child she never had. For Ursula he becomes the lover she never had and Carole Crow as Janet conveys perfectly her concern for her sister which leads inevitably to arguments with the wilful Ursula, played by Glenys Lloyd-Williams.
Comic relief is provided by Cheryl May’s Dorcas who seems to be always running from task to task and delivering common sense homilies in a broad Cornish accent. Also to be commended for her accent – Russian this time – is Abbi Leverton as Olga Danilov, a young artist on holiday in Cornwall. She is the focus of another doomed older lover, and Paul Stevens imbues Dr Mead with great pathos, particularly in a scene on the beach where he witnesses Olga and Andrea together and realises he stands no chance with the young artist.
Alex Howe brings depth to his portrayal of the talented young violinist Andrea, a demanding role both in terms of technical ability – appearing to play the violin and sustaining a Polish accent – and sensitivity, especially once he recognises Ursula’s feelings for him and tries to make her understand that she is just a friend, albeit a very good friend, to him.
Various motifs are brought out in the play – Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is Ursula’s favourite story, which she reads aloud to Andrea: the original story ends with the mermaid, who has traded her voice to gain human shape and be with the prince she loves, seeing her beloved marrying another woman, and the theme is acceptance, and the folly of obsessing over the unattainable. Interestingly, while Ursula, jealous of her youth and potential comparative attraction to Andrea, compares Olga to a story tale witch, the sea witch in The Little Mermaid is actually called Ursula.
The motif of a folly occurs again in a conversation between Dr Mead and Olga in which he tells her about a house built to look like something other than it is – again recalling the thought that the perceived love he has for her, and Ursula has for Andrea, are themselves follies. The denouement is not unexpected but no less emotional for that, and the final scene is beautifully choreographed.
A mention must go to the set design, which manages to combine various parts of the sisters’ house, the garden and the beach, enabling the action to proceed seamlessly. Costumes also give a flavour not just of the time in which the play is set but of the characters themselves. The complex lighting and sound effects contributed perfectly to the enjoyment of this bittersweet story.
Ladies in Lavender continues at the Apollo Theatre from Tuesday 21st to Saturday 25th September – tickets are available online at https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/apollotheatre/ladies-in-lavender/e-gvodge or from the box office on 01983 210010.