Roger & Val Have Just Got In: The Woman in the Attic (2.2)

Roger & Val Have Just Got In: Shock (2.1)
Roger & Val Have Just Got In: Surprise! (2.3)
BBC Series 2

It is the evening before Roger’s (Alfred Molina) appearance at the employment tribunal, which will decide if his sacking from a job as botanist at the Winter Gardens three months before was justified. He’s been watching a lot of crap American legal docudramas, the sort that end with a white rolling script on a black background, telling viewers what happened to the protagonists. Roger desperately wants his own victorious white script.

But for now, he turns off the TV and rehearses what he might say tomorrow. We get a glimpse of what was in that incriminating email, and it’s not looking good: “A brief mention in an email of mons pubis. Pubic hair! Let’s just get it out there. Let’s face it head on.” Perhaps not. Roger orders a Chinese takeaway – Celebration Banquet – which Val thinks is tempting fate when she hears of it – though it’s only because they always order that meal, and it has “rice for Val, noodles for me.”

Then Val (Dawn French) gets home, bizarrely dressed in black as some sort of housekeeper, with a sticker that says, “I believe Roger Stevenson was unfairly dismissed.” Val has been handing them out to all her friends and acquaintances, but we later learn that Phil, who sacked Roger, has had them banned from the court room. An affront to democracy, in Roger’s view. “Winter Gardens…North Korea.”

The reason for Val’s odd clothing choice is explained a bit later – World Book Day at her school, and the teachers came dressed as characters. Val is Mrs Danvers from Rebecca, while her rival for the post of Deputy Head came as Aslan. Evidently Val is seeking to undermine the authority of the heiress apparent to the position.

She brings a gift from another teacher, who apparently wore a hat from the brim of which were suspended swimming figures. It’s one of those figures, with the message to “keep swimming.” I’m struggling to understand which fictional character the hat represents – Australian obviously – but beyond that I’m stumped. (Just watched it again – Robinson Crusoe) The swimmer plays a large part in Val’s supernatural unease at Roger’s choice of Chinese meal. Like something from a horror story, it seems to follow them from room to room, a harbinger of doom for tempting fate. It even shows up in two places at once – her Mrs Danvers hairpiece and swimming in the bathroom sink. The mystery is explained by the donor having given her a hug while wearing the hat. Another swimmer must have got caught in the hairpiece.

Val is hugely supportive of Roger. “You’ve run a brilliant campaign for me, ever since we were married,” he says, and this extends not only to distributing stickers, but also running a Facebook page. There are 57 supporters, one of whom leaves the cryptic message, “You can’t pretend it didn’t happen.” Roger denies knowing this “Jean Duggan,” and suggests it might be the name of a French man. Absurd, of course. Val thinks it might be Phil, trying to set Roger up for another indiscretion, while he really doesn’t want to talk about it. When he goes to the door to get the Chinese meal, Val sends a Friend request to “Jean Duggan” to find out more.

Roger has to come clean when he notices the request. Apparently Jean Duggan, then 41, used to clean his rooms at college 31 years ago. While trying to persuade her not to buy her council house on political grounds, one thing lead to another, and they ended up in bed. Jean has seen the notice in the paper about the employment tribunal, and is hoping to re-ignite the flame. Roger has an septuagenarian stalker.

So the hand-delivered envelope that sent Roger into shock in the last episode obviously contained a love letter from Jean.

Is he telling the truth? After working out that they weren’t being haunted by multiple swimmers, Val says, ” A simple explanation, unlike your story.” My suspicions are certainly aroused by the final scene where Roger surreptitiously types something on the laptop. I’m guessing the woman in the attic refers to Jean.

Campbeltown Drama Festival 2012 (1/2)

Campbeltown Drama Festival 2012 (2/2)

We take theatre seriously in Scotland. Tuesday was the first night of the 63rd District Festival in the Kintyre Argyll District of the Western Division of the Scottish Community Drama Association, where local amateur dramatic groups are judged against each other for various trophies – the crown jewel being the eponymous Rex Trophy, won last year by Carradale Drama Club.

The event is held at Campbeltown Grammar School. As usual I walked and lost my way. The school is a big modern building nested among what passes for suburbia in a town of 5,000 – bungalows in a rat’s nest of curving streets that seem to go nowhere. Campbeltown is such a small place that I always think it’s possible to walk anywhere in minutes, but always get lost in these streets despite leaving in plenty of time. Thankfully, a passing motorist I flagged down was going there as well, and gave me a lift.

Carradale Drama Club kicked off the festival with The Beach Hut, by Mark Rees, a very tasty black comedy about a 40 year old marriage gone murderously sour. Perfect for Valentines Day, and I thought it was the best play of the evening. Vera and Geoff, a retired northern couple, have been coming to Scarborough for their holidays for the last 40 years (including the honymoon). Vera’s a snob, moving them from a beach hut near the promenade, when it all got a bit too common, to a hut at the furthest end of the beach. Much like a yuppie would move out to the suburbs as a sign of status.

Geoff’s a down to earth sort of bloke, who hates being parked out in the sticks where you can’t see the young women in bikinis without using binoculars. And he hates Vera, who cordially returns the compliment, each one hoarding their resentments and secrets like misers under the calm surface of a boring, seemingly conventional marriage. But today is when the kraken wakes.

A minimalist set of 3 beach hut facades in blinding primary colours, flanked by cardboard cutouts of a fat lady and a skinny man in bathing suits, faces cut out, so the characters can speak through them directly to the audience. And I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside as the intro and outro music.

Lovely stuff.

It went downhill from there. Next up were Peninver Players, with Our James, by Roz Moruzzi. An underwhelming and contrived play, set in the late 1990s, about a Scottish woman who discovers that her mum gave birth to her via a sperm donor two years after her husband ran away with another man. Iris is very upset and wonders what to tell her 14 year old son, James, who is already in trouble at school. He’s 6’2″ tall with flame red hair, while she and his father are average height and dark-haired. Dang genes, jumping a generation.

So Iris goes respectively to a Citizens’ Advice Bureau, hospital records clerk, and a probation officer to ferret out her dad’s identity. All these offices serially occupy a corner of the stage. The problem is that there’s no dramatic tension in the plot, nor is the dialogue sharp enough to carry the play. The final revelation is like the punch line to a weak joke, turning as it does on an entirely expected symmetry between the behaviour of James and his grandfather. Granddad was tall, red-haired forger and so is James, who has has been making banknotes to help out his doting granny.

While Our James was underwhelming, I found Some Mother’s Son, by Mark Rees to be as dark as The Beach Hut, but with a stink of piety wafting from the stage. A production of Campbeltown’s own Accent Players, it’s set in a front line military hospital during the First World War. The protagonists are a group of nurses and two wounded soldiers. The Private is a young man, with his private parts scoured away by shrapnel, who is expected to die of his injuries. In the next bed is the Corporal, a grizzled army veteran of 35 years, in for a minor wound.

The Corporal tells the Private a secret. Just prior to being wounded, he slit a fellow-soldier’s throat, alleging the man had caused his wife to commit suicide by laying down on a railway line. An investigation is under way by the Captain, who will be visiting the hospital to ask them questions.

The Private takes it on himself to confess to the crime, knowing he will soon die. He tells a young nurse, a cheerful, pious lass, daughter of the kirk, insisting that she wait till he dies before telling the Captain. The Corporal finds out and, when the lad dies, awakens her suspicions by questioning her too closely about what she intends to do. He admits to the crime and, to make sure of compliance, threatens to cut her face if she doesn’t tell the Captain that the Private did it.

So Lucy, in fear for her life, repeats the lie. But on finding out the Private will be stripped of all honour and reputation, she tells the Captain the truth.

Here’s my problem with the piety angle. Lucy is like The Singing Nun (only Scottish and Protestant), unfailingly bright and cheerful, singing hymns with the soldiers to comfort them in pain, and cloyingly sweet. Fair enough, if that’s what floats your boat, but I was left drowning in a tide of bathos. True, her moral compass gains some nuance during the course of the play. Unfortunately, that’s not the whole of it.

The sainted Captain, sent to deliver justice, is portrayed as a kind of divinity. One of the other nurses is an old flame, and she is excited to be meeting him again. But she gets a homily from a senior nurse about devotion to duty, and this isn’t the time to be thinking about romance. It’s a sub-plot that goes no further. Pity. Perhaps the Captain wouldn’t have been such a cardboard character.

To be fair, Lucy is superbly balanced by the morally raddled Corporal, who has the acting chops (and the face) to bring something of the honest Iago to the role. He’s a far more interesting character, one quite capable of having murdered his wife, or driven her to suicide, all by himself.

But the apotheosis of piety occurs in the final scene, when there is a convocation of nurses and soldiers (including the scumbag Corporal), while the Captain delivers his sermon, sorry, announcement. Throughout the play there was a red medical cross illuminated on the wall at the back of centre stage, with a podium beneath it. Our gallant Captain  delivers his humbug pronouncement from this podium, illuminated by the light of the cross. The Private’s reputation is excoriated for supposedly killing the wrong type of soldier, thus prompting Lucy to defy danger and declare she must tell the truth. Curtain falls.

Now this play was written by Mark Rees, author of the pitch-black, Beach Hut. Is he being ironic and and I’m just too thick to notice? There’s certainly an inherent irony in a play about a soldier killing a soldier when he’s supposed to be killing other soldiers. But it’s played completely straight. That said, the dramatic tension made it the most interesting play of the evening from the point of view of plot. My jury’s still out on this one.

In a day or two, I will review Wednesday’s plays. Bit of a backlog right now, and I should tackle the more time-sensitive Singing Detective and Roger & Val first.

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)
BBC Series 2

It’s good to see a second series of the most underrated BBC drama from 2010 – Roger & Val Have Just Got In. Starring Alfred Molina and Dawn French as the eponymous middle-aged married couple, the programme covers the first 30 minutes of their arrival home in real time. Beneath the slice of life conversation about everyday events, a picture is slowly revealed of the stresses and strains of their life together. For some bizarre reason, the BBC labeled the first series as a comedy, perhaps on the basis of Dawn French’s history as a comedy actor. This may have been why so many viewers were disappointed. While there are some comedic elements, Roger & Val is an understated and powerful drama about the secrets, lies, and evasions of a couple who are fundamentally devoted to each other.

We learned in the first series about the ghost in their marriage, a son who died after only a few weeks, still carried in Val’s heart but repressed in Roger’s mind as too painful to think about. Roger has another worry – the imminent death of his father, which occurs during the timeframe of the show. Stressed beyond measure, he sends a politically incorrect email to a woman at work and gets the sack. (He’s a botanist in a Winter Garden.) It doesn’t help that there’s already a lot of acrimony between Roger and his boss. Val, a domestic science teacher, has secrets of her own. She still thinks fondly of an old flame and Roger is jealous.

All this makes for an explosive mixture. Val decides to leave Roger in the fallout from the detonation, but their love for each other brings them back together again.

The second series begins with Roger waiting for his employment tribunal, and Val waiting to find out if her application for the deputy headship is successful. They return from their neice’s wedding on a Sunday evening, sparring about how Roger stank up the hotel bathroom so Val didn’t have a chance to take a proper bath that morning. Val doesn’t want the lamps turned on because she wants to unpack everything while the house is still “bleak.” After that it can be bright, and comfortable. But the fire is turned on. This plot device is quite important because it turns on neither of them noticing a particular letter in the hall, delivered by hand, for Roger.

They do have the original, vinyl recording of Rolf Harris singing Two Little Boys, the copy Roger and his brother, Mike, had as kids. It’s a present from Mike to encourage him at the employment tribunal. And they have the letter telling Val she’s been shortlisted for the deputy headship.

There’s an hilarious bit about her preparation for the interview – practicing with a cardboard box on her head in front of the mirror. One side is cut out to reveal her face. the other sides have pictures of, respectively, Martina NavratilovaHilary Clinton, and “Margaret who was on The Apprentice,” with the eyes cut out so she can see. These are the personas she will present at the interview.

But Roger and Val don’t have the letter that’s been lurking unseen in the hall. There they are, bumbling around out there and turning on the lamps until you think they must be blind. Finally, Roger spots it, and his reaction is very strange. He furtively stuffs it into his back pocket, peers through the curtains to see if anyone saw him, and goes out to the garage to read it. He returns obviously deeply worried, fumbling the packet of flour that Val asks him to get down from a cupboard and spilling it over his head. In the living room, he turns off the light so he can read the letter again without being seen. Shock, just as the episode title says – he visibly sags. And Mike’s irreplaceable record, placed on the mantelpiece, has melted in the heat from the fire.

Brilliant cliffhanger plotting and more secrets to come in this splendid domestic drama. Shock is still available on the BBC iPlayer. I urge you watch it while you can.