Plays with aggressively poetic names like Candleland or Crocodile Sonata often repay avoidance. So the news that Lynn Redgrave’s latest offering was titled Nightingale hardly had me tripping through Hampstead in anticipation.
The play was inspired by the memory of the author’s maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson, and presents an intriguing series of snapshots of an Edwardian woman’s life from adolescence onwards. Styling her vaguely remembered relative under the name Mildred Asher, Redgrave’s self-directed one-hander highlights crucial moments of this ‘seemingly chilly’ woman’s life.
Thus, we witness the excruciating wedding night of a girl shockingly unprepared for married life’s onslaught of intimacy. Or we see a bored young mum contemplating the start of “another day” like some Kensal Rise refugee from Beckett’s Happy Days. Especially touching is the moment Mildred is informed by a stuttering official that her beloved son has died in the war.
The part of Mildred was gifted to Caroline John by the writer to say ‘thank you for a lifetime of friendship’, and John repays the compliment with a highly committed performance. However, despite the elegantly-crafted script, the play feels emotionally and philosophically undernourished. And, if Charlotte Damigos’s ante-room to eternity stage set looks portentous, the writing sometimes lurches towards sitcom superficiality. This is how Carla Lane’s 1970’s series, Butterflies would have sounded had she collaborated with Samuel Beckett. Meanwhile, Mildred’s “tick-tock” mantra in response to time’s passing is merely annoying, and the impression of a Woodpecker at a crucial moment unnecessary.
One suspects that Redgrave over-identifies with her rather naïve protagonist. This makes it tempting to ascribe Mildred’s philosophical myopia to the playwright. For instance, there’s little sense that Mildred’s husband is a fellow victim of society’s gender roles, or of how such stereotypes prevent genuine intimacy between lovers.
The same applies to social class. Mildred’s Virginia Woolfe-like complaints about the hired help suggest an individual happy to exploit power differentials. Moreover, the ‘lower orders’ are mostly hastily-sketched ciphers with silly accents. Accordingly, the farmer for whom Mildred nearly falls is a papier-mache Oliver Mellors.
Like Mildred, this well-wrought play suffers from a certain emotional detachment. For all its poetic imagery, the main sensation provided by this show is that of watching an immaculately painted tank firing feathers.