A production bookended by Sidney Bechet’s recording of Maple Leaf Rag and the entire cast launching into a Flanagan and Allen routine with (what else?) Forget-Me-Not Lane sounds like fun, but in between Peter Nichols’ play seems uncertain of what it wants to be.
Middle-aged Frank is preparing to leave his wife. This leads him to remember and re-activate his life as a 14-year-old in 1941 and bring it gradually up to the present, 1970, when the play was written. A thinly disguised portrait of Nichols’ own family, he being Frank, it offers little more by way of plot than people arguing, irritating each other, falling in love, going to, and returning from war and, of course, growing older.
Frequently entertaining and sporadically moving the play remains unsatisfying. It hints at being a 1940's nostalgia trip (but needs more of the jolly concert party stuff) and a dramatised Bildungsroman (but Frank is too much a reactive cipher for his sentimental education to grip the audience). What it undoubtedly does is examine marriage and the relationships between the sexes as an impossible merger of dreamers and organisers. The final tirade of Ursula, Frank’s wife, a summary of every shrewish cliché, would be enough to expose Nichols to a charge of misogyny, were it not that his male characters are mired in hopeless immaturity.
Ben Fox establishes a nice rapport with the audience as Frank and plays neatly across the years as combined observer, commentator, stage manager and interrogator of past events. Bob Eaton’s workmanlike production has yet to achieve ideal fluency, but features clearly defined performances from all the cast, with welcome animation from young Frank and Ursula (Dominic Hecht and Katie Foster-Barnes) and luxury casting of Timothy Kightley in the small part of Mr Magic, concert party magician and sexual predator.
The most complex character, however, is Charles, Frank/Peter’s father. Mike Burnside well captures the strategies that he adopts to cover his inadequacy: the pomposity of the 1941 version, with the only car in the avenue and an obsession with avoiding terminal prepositions, giving way to the heavy-handed humorist of later years.
There’s much to enjoy in Forget-Me-Not Lane (from good gags to sharp-edged commentary on the human condition), but somehow it does not quite work as an integrated piece. Perhaps Peter Nichols’ admitted difficulty in putting himself on stage has something to do with it, perhaps the techniques subverting conventional stagecraft lack impact in the round where such conventions are subverted already.