The post-Edwardians loved nothing better than a hearty three-act play. Bookstalls groan with meaty theatrical dishes from the twenties whose casting requirements alone would give modern theatres screaming indigestion. Unless, that is, the dish in question can be filleted, stripped of its suet and served to us in a palatable two-hour portion, which is what director Phil Willmott has done with Arthur Wing Pinero’s fable The Enchanted Cottage. Sadly, though, and notwithstanding an unconvincing coulis of contemporary resonance (the programme attempts a Gulf War parallel), in the case of Country Magic ‘stodge minceur’ is still stodge.
Two Great War survivors, John Hillgrove (blinded) and Oliver Bashforth (maimed) meet at a cottage the latter has rented “for the purpose of being lonely”. Bashforth’s self-loathing is tempered when he meets the kindly though unattractive Laura, and the play’s cod-mysticism unfolds as their relationship develops. The couple embark upon a marriage of convenience, yet within days the enchanted cottage has worked its country magic and they have become lovers… and something more.
Designer Robin Don fills the eye with a giant painted gauze, the source of some visual tricks whose impact is compromised if you sit to the side. Indeed, the ungainly ‘wide-on’ configuration does no favours to the play as a whole, since ensemble scenes are constrained to an uncomfortably narrow acting strip.
As Bashforth, Daniel Albelson limps and barks meanly, although he is a long way from Pinero’s ‘wreck of a man’. Victoria Gee characterises Laura with pathos and an ungainly charm. If neither appears particularly damaged or ugly, both are successful at negotiating the improbable progression of their roles. The minor players, mostly comic relief, do not always offer a comparable strength of support, although Moir Leslie is delightful as Bashforth’s mother.
Is this really three-star cuisine, then? Just about, thanks to the riveting Hillgrove of Jamie Hinde. The lovers’ blind friend and counsellor could be an insufferably sympathetic character, but Hinde imbues him with the subtlest shades of certainty, uncertainty, compassion and confusion. It is the play’s pivotal role and Hinde’s performance is luminous.
Country Magic bears the unmistakable smack of JM Barrie in his supernatural mood, except that unlike Mary Rose or Dear Brutus Pinero’s fantasy remains earthbound and predictable. Phil Willmott has clearly fallen in love with this play, though, which is why his eye beholds its beauty. The rest of us are likely to find it rather plain.
- Mark Valencia