Cut, but not forgotten
I've been having a very good time reviewing theatre for the Sunday Times this spring (interesting things to see, nice editors: we don't take these things for granted). But the word count is tight, and that presents difficulties: especially if, like me, one of your pleasures is collecting gemstone performances in smaller roles.
These are often cherishable - partly because the part isn't heralded, and the actors may be less well known. And you may not have read about them in the reviews - because, hello - so they feel like your own personal treat. They may not carry a play, but they nuance it, colour its atmosphere in almost imperceptible ways.
Last week, for example, I loved Becky Hindley in Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba in Southampton. She has done tons of great work on British radio, so it was great to attach a (strong, resolute) face to the name. But there wasn't room for a mention - she wasn't playing the terrifying Bernarda or one of her cowed daughters, or even the household's principal servant, all of whom had apparently more significant roles. But Hindley's maid, dog tired and raw with resentment, did much to establish the play's atmosphere of seething entrapment - everyone hates Bernarda, but no one dares defy her. Hindley's wordless cleaning and pacing before the play proper begins makes this clear.
Servants often get cut out of short reviews. It perpetuates vile class inequalities, but how do you judge between a supporting role and a set design (I often aim to mention the lighting designer, but there's another frequently lost cause)? Come the revolution, I'll be sorry (though on that blessed day, we'll also remember that the poshest character doesn't necessarily deserve the greatest stage time and the rewrites will begin). In the meantime, I wish I'd had room to hurrah Stephanie Jacob's lovely performance in Burnt by the Sun at the National Theatre: another maid who brought on atmosphere along with the tea, this time as a lachrymose retainer, subject to titters from the genteel family she worked for, her soft face creasing with tears, neglect and shy smiles.
Ensembles are another worry. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman's earnest, fantastical epic now touring in Birmingham Rep's production, had some weak performances in vital roles. But some of the hardworking ensemble deserved medals, especially Nicholas Asbury and Emma Pallant. He brought an unpredictably comic gleam to the baggy story (especially when voicing a pint-sized spy), while she gave it a hollow-voiced solemnity (memorably as a vicious, lonely harpy). Their every appearance, however brief, was vivid, and extended the show's emotional range.
None of these plays would have been the same with other actors in these smallish but vital roles. But at least audiences who encounter them in the theatre will have the thrill of seeing these performances wholly fresh, and of feeling that they are, yes, a personal treat.
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