The Happiest Days Of Your Life
1st November 2014
Needingworth Village Hall
Type of Production
Author: Sandra Samwell
From the time one entered the brightly lit and welcoming village hall at Needingworth to the time one left, following friendly and informative post performance chats with cast and crew members, The Wellworth Players, presented themselves with pride, warmth and experience accumulated over many years of crowd pleasing performances.
A packed house thoroughly enjoyed a play that has been sadly neglected by other societies in recent years but ought to have a regular place in the amateur canon of popular theatre despite its age and the excessive use of the post war pun and double entendre to raise a laugh.
Before Carry-On, Hancock on TV and Rock and Roll came rollicking pieces such as this one, ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’ by John Dighton, much beloved of repertory companies and reflecting a Britain of ration books, class division, pipe smokers and Received Pronunciation. Wellworth Players were ‘spot on’ with their solid, sepia, evocation of a late 1940s’ staff room. The plot, concerning a girls’ school and boys’ school sharing the same premises whilst hiding the fact from the parents gave us laughs-a-plenty and many cases of mistaken or assumed identity.
Farces need good doors and windows and this fine setting had those in abundance as well as more subtle reminders of a bygone era with distressed panelling, maps, panoramic school photos, appropriate magazines ( changed to show the passing of time) and furniture that had seen much better days...and dust, lots of dust!
Many congratulations to the stage management and the large construction team for building such a fine context in which the talented onstage team could entertain us so convincingly. Team is a word that Wellworth Players understand very well, by the way, as the whole production, including the front of house helpers, exuded team spirit from beginning to end.
As for the play itself, the spirit of Margaret Rutherford was alive and well in Wellworth! In the first act, from Simon West’s long suffering caretaker and handyman, Rainbow, to the young, optimistic master Dick Tassell, spiffingly played by Chris Thompson, to the world weary older master ,Rupert Billings, lugubriously portrayed by Neal Dench, we knew that we would hear every word of dialogue in an authentic and humorous manner. Without singling out individuals for a surfeit of praise in a uniformly excellent cast, I would pay tribute to Mark Hébert’s Headmaster, Godfrey Pond, and Karen Bay’s Joyce Grenfell-like Miss Gossage who exuded the voice and manners of the age alongside particularly fine comic timing. Pond’s phone call in Act 3 was a master class in playing a smooth Lothario in the Leslie Phillips’ style.
I appreciated the preservation of the three acts rather than the more modern melding of three into two, not to mention the fish and chips supper and the home made cakes which tastily and tastefully informed both intervals.
I also appreciated a well lit stage with timely sound effects, although I thought the musical soundtrack missed a trick in being too wartime and insufficiently ‘start of a new era.’
Delightfully played characterisations of increasingly eccentric people enlivened this madcap piece: Lizzy Elliott as Miss Whitchurch the headmistress cleverly showed us the surrender of a sensible woman into the arms of surrealism whilst Francesa Mann as Joyce Harper gave us a necessary glimpse of the oncoming glamour of the fifties in a delightfully naive rendition of what might have been a thankless role.
As the two youngsters, Hopcroft and Barbara, two wonderfully truthful performances were given. You could really believe that the very young Leon Mutter was enjoying the escapades he described and the lisping, heroine worshipping Kirsty Inman was an ingénue of exceptional acting gifts.
In the later acts, adept direction lifted us to a new level of pace, confusion and the employment of those wonderful doors for the endless, ever faster comings and goings. The introduction of the cameos of the various parents helped this process: Dominic Sharp gave us a finely tuned comedy vicar and Geoff Durrant as Edgar Sowter, a plus-foured huntin’ and shootin’ bore of the first order whilst Vi Parkinson and Abi Pearson provided sterling support as the wives who anchor a farce like this in an incredulous reality.
All the actors were aided by some terrific costume choice and design which shouted out ‘post war England’ for which the wardrobe team deserve much praise.
This is not a play to analyse in depth although one might reference the symbolic nature of the characters (Billings as the past and Tassell as the future?) and plot to represent the new Elizabethan age waiting in the wings and a dying class system, and indeed an education system, soon to be overtaken by coeducation and the rise of the middle classes, not to mention a theatre which had yet to be affected by ‘Look Back in Anger.’
If I have any criticisms, they are about the maintenance of pace throughout a farce: beginning at a fast enough pace, increasing it further and moving from a brisk walk to a trot to a run, literally and figuratively as we progressed. I would have loved to have seen more physicality, doorway collisions and French door accidents than we did as well as the perfection of the farcical pause and double take to accentuate the genre and increase the laugh rate. That being said, there were some well directed examples of farce at the end of Act Two and particularly in the Act Three finale which was a masterful set piece.
Just a little grumble too about some actors being masked by standing in a line or standing too far upstage, forcing other actors to turn upstage and a tinier mumble about the importance of the right shoes for the period for all the characters helping to centre their performances and not detract from brilliant costumes.
Overall though, much praise is due to the Wellworth Players and their director, Paul Silver, for giving us an outstanding production of this jolly play. It was certainly one of the happiest days of my autumn 2014 thus far.