This is, I think, the first time I have begun a review by praising the programme, but, excellent as it is, the programme is key to an underlying sadness in Bus Stop. It has to re-introduce us to William Inge, now largely forgotten, the “Playwright of the Midwest”, a homosexual alcoholic and depressive who committed suicide less than 20 years after his years of continued Broadway/Hollywood triumph with Bus Stop, Picnic and many others.
Bus Stop is remembered, of course, for the Marilyn Monroe/Don Murray film, a very different animal from the original play. The play’s location is the Bus Stop, Grace’s Diner, while the film inevitably opens up the back story, but more important is that the play is an ensemble piece for eight actors, not simply the story of the tempestuous relationship of young rancher Bo Decker and Cherie the night-club chanteuse.
Somewhere short of Topeka, the bus from Kansas City comes to a halt, the road ahead blocked with snow. The driver and four passengers join the local sheriff in Grace’s Diner, presided over by Grace herself and Elma Duckworth, High School pupil and part-time waitress. By the time the road is cleared all except the calmly god-like sheriff (a performance of authority and wry humour from Tom Hodgkins) have undergone some sort of epiphany or change in relationship. Most aspects of love from cheerful sex to devoted buddy get an airing.
James Dacre’s production for the New Vic at Stoke in association with the Stephen Joseph Theatre is thoughtful and true to the spirit of the play, nearly drama, not quite comedy, set in a solidly realistic world but, according to Inge, “the closest thing to fantasy I ever wrote”, unfailingly warm-hearted despite the writer’s torments. Libby Watson’s designs set the play convincingly in a 1950s diner, the spread of tables in the round staging allowing Dacre to shift the focus from character to character.
Louise Dylan’s Cherie is straight out of Marilyn Monroe’s “fuzzy end of the lollypop” character range, but far more subtle and moving than a mere impersonation, and Philip Correia invests Bo Decker with all the necessary vigour, fury and naivety. A fine ensemble is completed by Brendan Charleson and Abigail McKern, suitably pragmatic as bus driver and owner of the diner, Patrick Driver, both sympathetic and repellent as the intellectual addicted to alcohol and young girls, Simon Armstrong, full of understated strength as Bo’s ranch-hand buddy, and the outstanding Beth Park, bringing together Elma’s joy in life and uncertainty, her shrewd intelligence and wide-eyed innocence, in a moving characterisation.