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Theatre review: The Veil

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General

19.10.2011

Prestat and our luxury chocolates have a long association with the theatre. Loyal customers include such theatrical greats as Sarah Bernhardt in the 1910s and Sir John Gielgud and Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the 1950s – joined today by Olivier Award winner Adrian Lester. Neville Croft, former owner of Prestat, was a playwright whose writing career was sadly curtailed after drunkards interrupted press night of his West End play All Year Round in October 1959. In memory of Neville Croft, we now publish the occasional theatrical review.

The Veil at The National Theatre

The current raft of Irish plays in London are joined by The Veil, a new play written and directed by Conor McPherson (best known for The Weir) which is set way back in 1822. There’s more than a touch of The Cherry Orchard about the plot but for those who find Chekhov a bit rich, don’t be put off. This is lighter, wittier, fare but, nonetheless, superbly well-written and finely acted. Imagine, if you can, The Cherry Orchard meets The Others and you are just about there.

The setting is the drawing room of a dilapidated stately home in Ireland, which makes for one of the most beautiful stage sets you will ever see. There is a full blown famine outside, the farmers won’t pay their rents, the nearby town of Jamestown is crumbling and the widowed lady of the house is facing the forced sale of the estate.

Like The Cherry Orchard, actual poverty is kept off-stage but so is the potential purchaser of the estate. Instead, the action pivots around the desire of Lady Madeleine to marry off her daughter Hannah to English nobility in order to secure an income and maintain status.

Two rather quirky, even queer, characters have been invited from London to accompany the daughter on her trip to England: the Rev. Berkeley, a defrocked priest and new-age spiritual adviser, and his friend Mr Audelle, a laudanum-addicted philosopher of dubious merit. Both have a keen interest in the spirit world and have been eager to visit the house. Hannah has been hearing the voice of her later father who, in her infancy, she found hung by the neck above the mantelpiece in the living room.

Thrown into the pot are a demented grandmother, an amiable housekeeper and an alcoholic, sexually frustrated, estate manager. The mix is further spiced by Hannah having no desire to marry the titled idiot Englishman.

The cast is universally strong with the winning roles being those of the peculiar Rev. Berkeley and odious associate Mr Audelle played by Jim Norton and Adrian Schiller. If there’s a weakness to the play it’s in not knowing whether to take it as a serious historic social commentary – this was the age of romanticism and German transcendental philosophy, themes which are explored at some depth – or a period thriller in which Margaret Rutherford might be expected to appear from stage left.
Intentionally or not, it treads the path between the two with some dexterity and, for my money, emerges the better for it: a thoroughly enjoyable play which, though thought provoking, never asks to be taken too seriously.

Chocolate rating: 4 violet crèmes out of 5

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