Revisiting a major success of a quarter of a century ago is always interesting, but sometimes disconcerting, especially if the play in question has not become a staple of the theatrical repertoire. Louise Page’s Salonika doesn’t feel dated, except in so far as the characters’ ages and experiences set it firmly in the 1980s, but Page’s “groundbreaking feminist viewpoint” now seems less than revolutionary.
Salonika merges character comedy, fantasy, poetry, mystery and social comment boldly, but with debatable success. The elderly mother and daughter whose fractious relationship sets up plenty of good gags (though rather too many on the theme of Brits’ mistrust of “abroad”) have to become sufficiently three-dimensional to explore themes of loss, freedom, loneliness and so on.
Salonika is where Charlotte’s husband, Ben, lost his life as a First World War soldier. Now, 64 years later, her daughter Enid’s wish to see the grave of the father she never knew has brought the 82-year-old Charlotte unwillingly to Greece. They’re joined by Leonard, at 75 still willing to hitchhike across Europe to pursue his courtship of Charlotte. The mutual dislike of Leonard and Enid, unmarried and living with her mother, seems certain to force Charlotte into a choice between them.
Helping resolve this complex triangle are two young men from the fringes of the real world. Ben appears whenever thoughts drift his way, to interrogate the other characters’ world-view, and Peter, the mysterious naked sleeper on the beach, appears to offer alternatives of freedom and irresponsibility.
All five actors give intelligent and accomplished performances, with Josephine Tewson (Charlotte), Lynn Farleigh (Enid) and Fred Pearson (Leonard) well matched as the central trio. However, though Farleigh’s failed liberation in the last act is very moving, elsewhere it’s not easy to become involved in their problems and decisions. Daniel Bayle (Peter) and Paul Fox (Ben) both combine otherworldly detachment with, respectively, the joys and agonies of the flesh.
Nikolai Foster’s clear-eyed, unsensational direction is helped by Colin Richmond’s designs, essentially minimalist, but with the occasional coup de theatre, as when Ben in his First World War uniform erupts from the sand on his first entrance. The expanse of sand and James Whiteside’s intense lighting make the heat palpable at the outset and in Mic Pool’s video and sound the sea is always there, soothing and dangerous.
It’s difficult to take issue with any of the parts of this well-balanced production of a challenging play, but the sum lacks the wished-for impact.