Roger & Val Have Just Got In: Poem for Uncle Jack (2.5)

Roger & Val Have Just Got In: Shock (2.1)
Roger & Val Have Just Got In: The Woman in the Attic (2.2)
Roger & Val Have Just Got In: Surprise! (2.3)
Roger & Val Have Just Got In: Pam’s Collage (2.4)
BBC Series 2

Poem for Uncle Jack

Tonight I find I can quite clearly recall your face,
The small eyes, your bald head,
The surprisingly pleasant smile, given your fangs.
You were a Tory,
Seen in the Liberal Club with your arms around two women.
So who were you?
My confusion grows,
And this is probably the last time I ever think of you.
Adieu.

– Val Stevenson

Poem for Uncle Jack is Val’s (Dawn French) slightly drunken attempt to write about an obscure uncle who has just died. William McGonagall couldn’t have done better. She barely knew Uncle Jack, and she knows even less about Liam, Roger’s (Alfred Molina) 31 year old son by Jean Duggan. The episode sets up a false dramatic equivalence between these two unseen characters that brings out their feelings about Liam.

Roger and Val come in from the pub, on a night of torrential rain, after Liam fails to show up for an arranged meeting. Roger is having a panic attack and blaming himself for Liam’s non-appearance. Val takes a call on her mobile from Barbara, Jack’s wife, and there’s a knock at the door. Roger opens it but there’s no-one. He’s convinced it was Liam. “I wish he was our son,” he tells Val. “How can I have a son with another woman but not with you?” She replies, “I can think it was 12 years before I met you, but you were still mine, even though I didn’t know you. Oh, I didn’t know you but I did.”

Then we find out that Pam Bagnall has already got the Deputy Headship. I thought she might. Pam mistakenly activates her phone in Sainsbury’s so that Roger and Val overhear something that suggests she is addicted to Nurophen Plus. Can it be used against her, given that Pam might have sabotaged Val’s interview by switching salt for sugar in the tea and coffee, when it was the responsibility of Val’s department? Deep waters, but Val is too good to take advantage. Nevertheless, “I am a disappointed woman.”

Another knock at the door. Nobody there, but Val spots him sitting in a car outside, and they wave at him from the living room window until he drives off again, fixed smiles on their faces. Val’s idea, to draw Liam in without spooking him. “I’m very keen to come across as the stepmother you’d want.” This is a brilliant bit that combines an impression of the Queen and Prince Philip waving from a balcony with references to The Sound of Music and Val wanting to be like Julie Andrews.

When they get talking about Pam Bagnall’s dirty tricks, Val gets very upset, drinks too much, and writes her splendid poem. Roger is ever supportive. “That is fantastic, Val.” But she needs to have her moment of grief, which she honours by playing Those Were the Days, by Mary Hopkins. Truly gruesome, and Roger hates it, although it gets Val out of her emotional rut so she stops getting drunk.

Then the car returns and Liam leaves a box of Roses Chocolate on the doorstep. And there’s a baby seat in the car. Have you got a baby, Val gestures from the window. Yes, Liam gestures back, before he drives off.

Roger is over the moon. And coincidentally, “It’s stopped raining.” Val, even though she’s happy for Roger, finds it troubling news. A 31 year old son is something she can take in her stride. But a baby is a discomforting reminder of their own dead son.

Roger & Val Have Just Got In: Surprise! (2.3)

Roger & Val Have Just Got In: Shock (2.1)
Roger & Val Have Just Got In: The Woman in the Attic (2.2)
BBC Series 2

The title of this episode – Surprise! – is a bit of an understatement. It’s more akin to a bomb exploding just when you think the war is over, and there are long years of peace to look forward to. It begins well. You can tell by the cheerful, fizzy intro music that Roger (Alfred Molina) has won his job back at the Winter Gardens. Quite how, we don’t know, and I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the tribunal. But you can tell by the spring in his step as he comes in the door, and expectation of a surprise party lurking in the dining room, that all is well.

Roger’s disappointment when he discovers there’s no party is so manifest that Val’s (Dawn French) surprise is put in the shade. It takes a while for her pint of cask ale from the pub with a “Roger Stevenson Was Unfairly Dismissed” sticker on it to regain the higher celebratory ground.

But there’s a still a woman in the attic, and you begin to wonder when she’ll bang on the the ceiling with her stick. Val cooks a spaghetti meal with pans that were new when her son died 19 years before – they were still in their original cardboard labels. “I thought if we used them tonight, he could be part of it. You know, join in.” Roger agrees. “It’s a family occasion. It includes him.”

Roger chunters on about inviting the tribunal panel to the party, if there had been one, while Val wonders if she would invite the Head of her school. It’s a time for bonding, with that sense you get in all their conversations that the ground is about to fall away beneath their feet.

The first signs of a tremor come when Val says she didn’t ring the door bell earlier, when Roger didn’t answer it so as not to spoil his surprise. Who could it have been? Then the mortgage rears its ugly head, and Roger goes off to the computer to look at when the direct debit kicks in. He discovers they’re almost £5,000 in debt. That’s bad enough, without the email from Jean Duggan to say she called but no-one was in, and would call again tomorrow. A resounding thump on the ceiling from the attic room.

In the meantime, Val is dishing up the meal. A “V” in sauce on their plates “for victory,” though Roger wants “V” on hers and “R” on his for their names. And a sauce heart in the pan because “it honours him.” Lovely stuff. But a strange formality envelops the meal in the dining room, which they both make light of but can’t really shake off. So Roger decides to make his announcement. “I haven’t been entirely truthful with you about Jean Duggan.” She is not a stalker and Val is not surprised.

Then the spaghetti boils over, much as Val’s feelings must be, and she burns her hand on “these awful pans” that are so associated with the pain of losing her son. Jean Duggan, it turns out, has been to the house twice. Once, when she rang the bell at the start of this episode, and also in last week’s episode when she talked to Roger outside.

Finally, Roger tells the complete truth. “I have a 31 year old son, called Liam, who’s alive.”

Devastating for Roger and Val, who live for each other. They are united by a dead son, kept alive in her heart by Val, and suppressed in Roger’s mind. Being both a good son and a father is fundamentally important to Roger. That’s why the pain of losing his son made him repress the memories. Now he has a live son, nothing to do with Val, who will be very important to him. And Val is bound to feel devalued and marginalized. This could blow their marriage to pieces.

Campbeltown Drama Festival 2012 (2/2)

Campbeltown Drama Festival (1/2)

Click on the above link for the first evening of the Drama Festival, on February 14, where I review 3 plays. There were another 3 plays the next evening. The reviews follow.

Lochgilphead Drama Club started the evening with The Big Cats, by Alex Baron. Lily is an extremely determined old woman who refuses to be moved from her terraced house in Scunthorpe when the entire area is being demolished for redevelopment. While she dearly loves her husband, Joe, she obviously wears the trousers in the family. And there’s something not quite right about the situation. Joe is strangely passive, he doesn’t physically handle any of the props, and he looks significantly younger than Lily. They spend much of the time reminiscing about the past, rather than talking about everyday matters, apart from the threat of moving.

The mystery is solved when Ann, a social worker, visits Lily to try to persuade her to accept the very nice flat she’s been offered. It’s as if Joe, who is actually present in the room, doesn’t exist. He says nothing, and Ann appears not to see him. So, he’s a ghost, and that explains everything.

Problem is, with that conundrum out of the way, the dramatic tension starts to sag. There  is the impending crisis of the “big cats” – caterpillar tractors or bulldozers – getting closer and closer to the house as the surrounding areas are cleared. Lily must either accept the flat or sign a paper saying she will make her own arrangements. Otherwise the the police will remove her from the house when the time comes. She refuses to do either, defying the police threat. Joe tries to persuade her, pointing out that the house is too big for them. Their son, Simon, is apparently dead. And the top floor has been sealed off to conserve heating. So a flat would be ideal for Lily. But she clings to her memories she and Joe share, refusing to leave him, a ghost, in the only haunt where he can survive.

Will she, won’t she? Of course she will – we know that. Ann makes a final appeal a day before literally the 11th hour, 11:00 the next morning, when the big cats will destroy the only remaining house in a wasteland of rubble. So Lily and Joe have a last heart to heart talk in which he begs her to accept the flat for his sake. Next morning, there she is when Ann arrives, with her suitcase and a cardboard box of belongings. But as a catalyst for her change of heart, the exchange the night before is unconvincing.

The play was most interesting when the oddities of Lily’s relationship with Joe were unexplained. That done, the climax was predictable and trite, though there were some hints that it could have been much darker. With the upper floor sealed off, and Lily talking to her dead husband as if he were alive, I was hoping for an ending something along the lines of A Rose for Emily. But my hopes were dashed when Lily said that he died in hospital after a stroke. Pity. I can just see Ann discovering her lying next to Joe’s mouldering corpse.

Peninver Players Juniors were up next, with The Wise Villagers, by Ron Nicols, the adjudicator. It’s a charming romp, with an all-ages junior cast, about young Squire Squibley’s quest for a sillier bunch of people than the idiotic family he’s marrying into. He is betrothed to Gwendoline Gumble, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and neither are her mum, dad, and grandmother. They’re all transfixed by the mallet on the shelf above their heads, having hysterics about the possibility of it falling on their heads, and completely failing to remove the danger by simply removing it from the shelf. Come to think of it, not unlike MMGW.

Hence Squire Squibley’s quest to see if there is anyone sillier than the Gumbles, in which case he will return to marry Gwendoline. Fortunately for her, he discovers the village of Gotham, where they think the moon has fallen into the pond when they see its reflection. Among many other extremely silly things.

As I said, a charming romp. But it also demonstrated something of the seriousness with which they take drama festivals in Scotland. A group of at least 6 actors were on stage. One forgot his or her lines. So they whispered briefly together, then backtracked a few lines and began again. All without panic, demonstrating a degree of trust in the audience and themselves as actors. I was impressed.

Dunaverty Players put on the final play of the festival, Background Artiste, by Stephen Smith. Alfredo Leache runs a very special kind of talent agency. It’s for “artistes” who can be guaranteed to remain firmly in the background of any production they appear in, or more likely, fail to appear in. The most reliable revenue stream for Alfredo would probably be the fee aspiring artistes pay for inclusion in his listings, while his commission for actual work would be negligible.

That said, he has some awesome artistes on the books. He spends most of the performance on the phone trying to place Dirk van Dyke in a skating role in Starlight Express, despite the fact that Dirk can’t roller skate. This is done with the help of Jessica, an assistant who finds considerable mental challenge in navigating the Yellow Pages. And it’s done in between Alfredo’s frequent journeys to the lavatory.

On the other side of the stage, there’s the client’s couch, occupied by Mary, a hopeful first-timer. While she’s waiting, her illusions are being shattered by Enid and Walter, a couple who seem to have spent a lot of time at the agency. They whinge on about the food and conditions, until poor Mary is quite disheartened. But she stays in the hope of a role once Alfredo can find time to interview her.

Then Enid goes off to get some Chinese food from the takeaway downstairs, and quite suddenly Alfredo is ready for her, having got a result with placing Dirk. Alfredo’s an honest, friendly rogue, and doesn’t hide the fact that he’s grateful her actual appearance is a lot better than the photo she’s supplied. He seems to be more of a therapist for those with acting ambitions than a bona fide theatrical agent.

This idea is reinforced when Enid and Walter reveal themselves to be Alfredo’s parents, retired actors, and part-owners of the agency. Their job is to evaluate the new applicants by discouraging them, but if they think an applicant has something and is prepared to persevere, secretly signal to Alfredo. Thus thumbs up is Enid going for a Chinese, thumbs down if Walter does.

Contrived, but the blether is entertaining and the ambience of a theatrical agency has its own appeal for someone like me. And it turns out it’s Mary’s lucky day. Based on her horrendous photo, he places her as a mutant on Star Tek: The Next Generation. Cue tractor beam, Star Trek music, and final curtain.