The Royalty Theatre’s production of The Day After the Fair shows that there’s more to Sunderland’s theatre scene than The Empire.
Let’s get this out of the way. Full disclosure: I am a not member of the Royalty Theatre, but I have links with them. At least four actors I’ve worked with are members. I have a read-through of one of my scripts coming up, and I am in ongoing discussions about the possibility of a performance. As such, I am not really in a position to give an impartial review. However, I’ve given their Newcastle counterparts (the People’s Theatre) a few mentions now, so it’s only fair that the Royalty gets a look in too. For the record, none of the people I know at the Royalty are involved in this play.
I’ve previously argued, as have many other people, that the People’s Theatre in Newcastle is a valid alternative to the many professional theatres on offer, but in Sunderland the situation is even more polarised. The only professional theatre on offer is The Empire, which describes itself as “The West End of the North East”. That’s not a bad description, but like the West End, there is very little actual theatre on offer. Out of all the events on offer in the next six months, I can only see one thing that I’d call a play; the rest are musicals, ballet, opera, big-name celebrities, and musical tribute acts. (This compares to seven at the Theatre Royal, nine at Live Theatre and three at Northern Stage.) Which means that for actual theatre in Sunderland, you usually need to turn to a much obscurer building just west of the city centre. However, the Royalty Theatre is an amateur theatre, so this can mean anything from productions as good as the professionals to toe-curlingly lame village hall shows (“Didn’t they all try hard?”) So, what do we have here? Well, the Royalty’s offering for January (indeed virtually the only offering that month if you’re allergic to pantomimes) is Frank Harvey’s The Day After the Fair, which is based on a Thomas Hardy short story, On the Western Circuit.
I will admit that for the first couple of minutes, I was worried. The opening music of cheesy Wurlitzer music carried on into the opening scene drowning out the opening dialogue between husband Arthur and wife Edith. It was only when the husband complained about the noise of the fairground coming through the window that I realised this was deliberate – but it wasn’t a wise way to do it. It might be unfair, but the one thing you need to avoid at all costs in amdram is making it look like you made a poor directorial decision out of lack of experience; you need to show your audience that this is the way you meant to do it all along. In this case, you could have done this by playing the fairground music from a backstage speaker, clearing any doubt that it’s just a techie who forgot to turn the music down. Also, the music throughout the play was not really appropriate to its 19th-century setting. These are minor points, but little mistakes such as this can add up and make a production look sloppy.
But that’s my only real criticism. Apart from that, it was quite a competent job done. Amateur dramatics societies and period drama is a notorious breeding ground for dreary productions of dreary scripts, but I enjoyed this play. Thomas Hardy is best know for household titles such as Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but it is often short stories that make the best plays. In this story, Edith is a bored wife trapped in a loveless marriage. Arthur is not a nasty husband as such, but his obsession with his family brewing business, lack of attention to his wife’s feelings, and complete inability to take on board some sensible advice from his own sister don’t exactly help matters. So bereft of anything else to do, Edith concentrates on educating Anna, an illiterate servant. One day, Anna meets Charles at the fair and instantly falls in love with him. She meets him again the day after the fair, and then – well, in society where access to sex education and contraception is unheard of (bit like Bible Belt America today), what do you think happens? Luckily, Charles is keeping in touch with letters, which of course Anna can’t reply to, but Edith kindly offers to write letters for her. So far, so good.
Then we run into complications. Edith insists on using beautiful flowery language in the letters that would make William Wordsworth proud. Anna of course can’t keep up with this, so the correspondence of letters turns into one between Anna and Charles. So when Charles finally appears and asks for permission to marry Anna, it’s not clear if he’s really in love with Edith’s letters. Meanwhile, with Edith having heard feelings and expressed feelings in return that she could never get from her own husband, she is, alas, in love with the Charles she knows from the letters. And it can only end in tears. So you see, the moral of the story is that you might think falling in love’s a good idea but it always gets complicated and messy in the end. Thank goodness I’m a cold heartless bastard.
There are some plays, such as The Importance of Being Earnest, where (provided everyone learns their lines) you can’t go wrong. This play is not one of them. In this play, what matters isn’t so much what the words are, but how the words are spoken. And most of all is that you need to give away the fact Edith is jealous of Anna long before she admits it. Frank Harvey reveals this by the way Edith speaks – she starts on a sentence, stops, hesitates, and rewords what she’s saying to try to dodge the thorny issues she wants to hide. I frequently curse when actors ignore (or worse, directors force actors to ignore) all the pauses and hesitations carefully crafted into the script and instead perfectly deliver the phrase as if they’re reciting a passage of Shakespeare. It might be that they think you can’t possibly hesitate on stage in case someone thinks you’ve forgotten your line – but there’s no need to worry here because they get it. It might have been a good grasp of the script from the actress playing Edith, a good grasp of the story from the director or a combination of both, but the fact they got this right works wonders for the production.
They also did a good job providing the set, props and costumes needed for a period piece. It’s nothing unusual – this is common practice amongst amateur companies with their own theatre – but it’s always good to see this used to complement play that made an effort to get the acting right, rather than compensate for a play that didn’t make an effort. The only real pity about the play was that the audience was small: 26 in a 216-seat theatre. I guess that the combination of mid-week and snow didn’t do any good, but that was a harsh turnout for a production that deserved more. But this is certainly a valid alternative to what the other theatre in Sunderland offers. For ballet, musicals, opera and celebrity, think Empire. But for theatre, think Royalty.