The Youth of Old Age
Verdict: Drama of old and new
London - Radio play review - free download, online - mp3 audio file
Sole heir to the family fortune, James Willem Gracie (Edward Harrison) returns to the Herefordshire estate to inform his formidable grandmother Elizabeth Willem Gracie (Prunella Scales) of his engagement to brain surgeon Mellie (Crystal Yu). This may sound straightforward enough but the events that ensue are anything but. Elizabeth is determined she will force James to extend his stay and then contrives to ensure that he eventually brings his fiancé to the estate so that she can appraise - and vetoe - the unsuspecting woman.
With the aid of the 'man of the manor' Edward (Knight Mansell), Elizabeth convinces James that she is seriously ill, even managing to override evidence of her robust health provided by local farmer Thomas (David Beck), who witnesses her pheasant-shooting on the estate in the company of Butch, the family dog. In an act of desperation, she brings matters to a head in a way which would lose shock value if disclosed here.
Elizabeth's machinations threaten to dissolve the Willem Gracie household for good. During the play, the characters' motives are dissected and underlying emotions revealed by bizarre events brought about by the eccentric behaviour of the lady of the house. In Elizabeth, playwright Stuart Price creates a sparkling comic portrait of a vindictive matriarch whose cruelty is infused with wit, and driven by love and fear of abandonment.
David Beck plays Thomas, a jovial but blunt-edged local farmer who talks of shovelling shit and castrating lambs in a soft country burr. His chat with James early in the play introduces an issue common to both of them: being part of a younger generation that typically rejects the expectations and traditions of the elder generation, but which will recognise its value as time passes. In spite of his good nature, he is keenly aware of differences between his class and the Willem Gracies's, dismissing them as 'bloody rich folk' as they shut the door on him at the end. David Beck's delivers an attractive, warm Herefordshire accent and captures the farmer's down-to-earth humour.
Edward Harrison plays soft-hearted James Willem Gracie, who attempts to straddle the chasm between the olde-worlde upper-class tradition of his upbringing and the cosmopolitan modern world of his working life as a trainee surgeon in a London NHS hospital. As his grandmother says, Edward is 'generous, idealistic, friendly and trusting - and none of those qualities get you anywhere’ so she sets out to toughen him up. He has an astonishing lack of suspicion about his grandmother's behaviour, but ultimately the young man is forced to come of age, and Edward Harrison shapes the character's journey from gullible wimp to a master of the household with success.
Knight Mansell delights as Elizabth's long-suffering gay butler Edward who bears his role as the butt of Elizabeth's jokes with rueful grace and perhaps masochistic enjoyment. Knight Mansell speaks in the clipped, measured tones evocative of the archetypal aquiline, poe-faced butler, even during outrageous banter about blow-jobs and turds. As Elizabeth concocts the increasingly mischievous plans he is obliged to implement, Edward's conscience battles with his ingrained loyalty until he finally snaps.
'Subterfuge, espionage, backstabbing and lying – a perfect way to start a day', announces Prunella Scales as deliciously waspish Elizabeth Willem Gracie. She deploys an extraordinary breadth of emotional colour to flesh out this curious woman into more than just a nasty old harridan. Rejuvenated by playing cruel games, her Elizabeth is wicked yet fun-loving, selfish yet devoted, and it is difficult to hate her outright even though her biggest stunt in the play would be unforgivable in reality, and her racist, homophobic or snobbish views would be unacceptable were they not cast in the light of shallow bluster and ignorance, as mere relics of a dead British Empire to be laughed at, rather than feared. As the play resolves, her underlying nature and motives are revealed. Who is the man she loved but who could not love her in return because he was 'not made that way'? Is this why she could not have her own children? Prunella Scales brings fun, charm and warmth to a role that demands highly-nuanced acting such as hers to elicit sympathy.
Crystal Yu plays James's fiancé Mellie with a light touch, portraying a deceptively tough cookie whose good-humoured refusal to take offence defuses hostility and ignorance. Level-headed Mellie cuts through James's regressive adolescence as he reacts to his grandmother's bad behaviour, and thus forges a path by which he can grow into the man he needs to be.
Stuart Price's writing is imaginative and technically polished. He affords all the characters strong development and makes a brave choice to write the dialogue of the Willem Gracie household in an anachronistic style, peppering the language with words such as 'I pray' and 'indeed', while including references to iPods and oral sex, and using urban slang phrases such as 'hubba hubba' in the conversation to set the action firmly in contemporary times. This creates an interesting tension in the language that in turn reflects the themes of tension between the old and new generations, and the upper and working classes in the play. As director, Stuart Price also elicits strongly-defined performances from the cast.
The incidental music is expertly composed and performed by Matt Fishel, who establishes the comic tone of the play with an upbeat opening piano theme, and which at times moves into pantomimic and filmic styles to reflect different moods during the play. Engineer Matt Walters and editor Joe Waters do a superb job in achieving the play's crisp, clean sound quality, and simple but effective sounds of old-fashioned door bells, echoing footsteps, absurdly creaking doors, crunching gravel, and hooting owls evoke the remoteness of the manor.
The Wireless Theatre Company creates a charming and well-acted comic radio drama, and credit is due to producer Mariele Runacre-Temple, co-producer Frances Kirkham, and editor Joe Waters, for the overall integrity and coherence of the play.
Cast Credits: (alpha order): David Beck - Thomas. Edward Harrison - James Willem Gracie. Knight Mantell - Butler Edward. Prunella Scales - Elizabeth Willem Gracie. Crystal Yu - Mellie.
Company Credits: Writer - Stuart Price. Director - Stuart Price. Composer - Matt Fishel. Editor - Joe Waters. Engineer - Matt Walters. Producer - Mariele Runacre-Temple. Co-Producer - Frances Kirkham. Recorded at - Quince Studios. Company - The Wireless Theatre Company. Download at - www.wirelesstheatrecompany.co.uk
(c) Tara Paulsson 2008
reviewed Sunday 8 May 08 / London
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2008