Noel Coward’s ‘Still Life’ strikes me as both a minor masterpiece and, in the best sense, a museum piece. It is a masterpiece for the sheer economy of its emotions, unbridled lust and love overlaid with middle class conventions. A museum piece for its tight station cafe background of rigid rules and regulations. The central characters of medical doctor Alec and suburban housewife Laura may be reliving and regretting their offstage trysts over luke-warm tea and cafe pastries, but it is the cafe proprietress who lays down the laws by which we should all live. Closing up at ten o’clock, not serving alcohol before six, and certainly no unseemly cavorting between male and female staff on railway premises. One could not help thinking that the troubled adulteress Laura admired such pre-war society rules, and by the end was silently wishing she had obeyed them.
Hang on I can hear you saying, this sounds like that film where middle aged housewife Celia Johnson relieved her dreary life by having illicit afternoons with Trevor Howard’s dishy doc, after he took some grit from her eye. And that film, as we all know, was ‘Brief Encounter.’ Never has the detritus from a train made such filmic history. And it still echoes today, getting on for sixty years later.
But in the film the gaiety of Laura is expanded and the staff in the cafe merely interesting and amusing background. The short play on which it is based, deprived of the dramatic and romantic focus of an unfulfilled woman, has a much more even and desperate feel. The lives of the richly crafted cafe folk both underpin and illuminate the desolation of the two nice and gently mannered folks waiting for the 5.43. It is as if Coward is saying that passionate dramas are being played out everywhere and in the most prosaic settings. If only we knew where to look.
I willingly throw my theatrical hat into the ring when I say that directors Alan and Megan Clarke brought all this to riveting and dramatic life. Over five short scenes we experience the discovery and ramifications of an unexpected love and the fleshing out of the anonymous people who provide its background. Elliott Lawrence and Liz Caswell were perfectly cast as the ultra respectable Alec and Laura with the doomed desire. Mr Lawrence played his part with an impeccably straight bat but was never less than sincere and truthful and if Miss Caswell was occasionally too lugubrious, she rivetingly painted a picture of a fragile woman drifting perilously out of her depth. There aren’t many laughs in their relationship and you couldn’t help thinking that such decent folks shouldn’t bonk away from home.
These classy central performances were backed up by some cracking support from the inhabitants of Milford Junction’s railway cafe. Natalie Gordon, with an over refined accent which could easily cut through house bricks, was a magnificent Myrtle Bagot. She lorded over all in the cafe, and when she offered her cakes and pastries fare you could never be sure whether you were getting the crown jewels or something from the sewer. Most of her attentions were on her long suffering assistant, an excellent not too bright Beryl from Stephanie Overington, and Joe Butcher’s nicely judged and slightly lecherous ticket inspector Albert, but all customers and staff knew who ruled this particular roost.
Only the last scene failed to totally bite. There is an underlining cruelty in the chance meeting of Laura’s chatterbox friend at the moment of the lovers’ final goodbye. Miranda Larson looked and sounded stunning but her Dolly Messiter lacked the relentless delivery necessary to notch up the subtle drama of quiet suffering. But that is a small point in an overall super production. Realistic cafe set pitched at the right level of ordinariness, excellent ensemble playing, and train sounds to satisfy even the most pernickety of anoraks. Throw in songs from Al Bowlly and Peggy Lee and there weren’t much to quibble about. Alan Clarke’s ACT Company only pops up on odd occasions. Judged on this little gem they should do so more often. Roy Hall