Theatrically speaking, bells seldom ring out in a carillon of rejoicing. They’re more likely to sound a peal of doom. The titular bell of Pat Whymark’s new play for Common Ground hangs in a Bavarian church tower, commemorating a local patriarch. Thalberg House is now inhabited by his two widowed daughters and their children. We never hear it sound in reality but Xenia Horne’s on-stage harp suggests its grim echoes to unnerving effect.
The year is 1912. A young man who was a visitor to the area in the course of researching a hiker’s guide has disappeared. His twin brother, knowing that Karl had become engaged to one of the daughters of the house, has come in search of him. But Thalberg House has secrets. Many are unpleasant.
Julian Harries has directed this slightly stylised production with the right intensity, which the occasionally formalised movements and groupings underline. The two key parts are those of the older women – Tracy Elster as Annalise, so successfully carving out a domestic niche for herself in everyone else’s existence, and Janeena Sims as Renata, a fading but still imperious beauty who sees her own daughter as a rival. Both are very good with Elster in particular weaving a potent spell.
Mark Finbow doubles the roles of the brothers, one slightly brash and extrovert and the other bespectacled and more dogged. Both fall for the charms of Ingrid (Bryony Harding), though her school-friend Ursula (Nancy Smith) takes a more abrasive attitude. Annalise’s two children are the slightly retarded Kurt and mischievous Gerda – Joseph Reed and Ruby Elster respectively.
Although the staging is deliberately symbolic rather than realistic with the minimum of properties and a background of elaborate wrought-iron, the writing and the performances keep the action taut as the past is slowly unveiled and the future slides towards the national catastrophes which we know are a mere two years’ away. The gothic elements are indeed those of a vanishing era but the issues which they raise are, unfortunately, those of all our centuries.