The variety of table-cloth and sheet folding techniques on display in Nottingham Playhouse’s fortieth anniversary production of Stephen Lowe’s Touched is something to behold. From the opening, as Vicky McClure’s Sandra cradles a sheet that has inadvertently formed itself into a baby-sized bundle, to the frustrated attempts of Sandra and her sisters to get the somewhat hapless Johnny (George Boden) to take down the washing correctly; from the aggressive precision with which Sandra sets out the best china as a barrier against her judgemental mother to her later oblivious arrangement of a picnic while those around her celebrate an engagement, the repeated actions of folding and spreading become mesmerising. In the cash-strapped, austere and colourless world of Sneinton during the last three months of World War II, the rituals of folding, arranging and place-setting are key to the ways in which the women of this play take control of their own environment.
It isn’t just the cloths and blankets, of course. Tea is significant, painstakingly prepared and poured at moments of great tension throughout the play. Bread is sliced and buttered for a picnic. Chicken is diced precisely, and surreptitious off-cuts wrapped for taking home. And a tin bath is filled with three buckets of water, themselves filled in turn from a tap in a different room. Jamie Vartan’s richly detailed period set crams the stage spaces with stuff, and a cast largely trained for television work with it in real time. While this can lead to some interminable sequences of watching housework, the slowness allows for moments of heightened attention. Particularly in the case of the bath, which the practical Joan (Aisling Loftus) fills with scalding hot water in preparation for an impromptu front-room abortion, the slowness of the process ritualises the mundane, emphasising the incongruity and extremity of what is about to happen.
The production is strongest in its attention to detail. The easy chat between neighbours bringing in the washing, dressing to celebrate VE Day, or simply lying down for a nap under a blossoming tree, is effective throughout, with jokes and put-downs between cast members that have an improvisational spark. McClure and Loftus have a good line in, respectively, withering sarcasm and back-handed jibes, and their quick wit does important work in keeping the play moving. The ensemble effectively captures a balmy and uncertain summer, and the combination of local references (in the voices of an all-Nottingham cast, an apparent first for professional productions of the play) and carefully constructed sets all contribute to the nostalgia.
It’s difficult to see a rationale for the revival beyond nostalgia, however. The casual racism espoused by several characters towards the locally interned POWs, the optimism about the UK’s first Labour government, and the social pressures on what a woman chooses to do with her body, are all as pertinent (if differently inflected) forty years on, yet the production feels curiously apolitical, its doubled pastness (1940s via the 1970s) acting as a time capsule, like discovering an old episode of Coronation Street. Stephen Lowe’s script, with its local cadences and finely drawn relationships, isn’t a museum piece, but the projection of a map of Nottingham onto the set and the detail of accent and period recreation (along with a programme full of reminiscences from audience members) seemed intent on making it one.
Matt Aston’s somewhat inconsistent direction doesn’t help the clarity. The kitchen-sink aesthetic of the first half was disrupted in the second by curious instances of choreography (notably a scene change in which Sandra was dressed by other women) that seemed to be trying to shift the play into a different genre. As Sandra’s ‘pregnancy’ is revealed to be phantom, and the action relocates to the woods, the production gestures towards an attempt to capture the slippage of Sandra’s sense of reality, but never commits to the stylistic change and returns to the safety of the kitchen.
Bizarrely and brilliantly, the last scene seems to be an exercise in Nottingham Playhouse brand synergy; the set is a 3D recreation of the newly released poster for the theatre’s upcoming production of The Cherry Orchard. Deliberate or not, the Chekhovian discussions of stagnation and plans to escape resonate in this setting, and the final image, aligning Sandra’s trauma with the (seen and unseen) ravages of war, is striking. If the production indulges in the cosiness of nostalgia, it does at least ultimately challenge that cosiness.
Touched is on at the Nottingham Playhouse until 4th March 2017. Click here for more details.