Sutton Vane’s shipboard comedy about death, which premiered at Hampstead’s Everyman Theatre in 1923 and subsequently transferred to numerous West End venues, is a tricky play to revive. Louise Hill’s stylish production is the first London revival in over fifty years and shows the play to be very much of its time in terms of social attitudes, but still strangely chilling in the way in which the characters are faced with the prospect of confronting the most forbidding unknown quantity of all
When a play begins with declarations of crashing snobbery, there’s a period of nervous laughter as the audience attempts to gage where the author’s sympathies lie. Written during a new wave of spiritualism after World War I and pre-dating Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit by two decades, Vane sets up a flippant comedy of manners in a confined space where the usual rules of etiquette cease to apply, mixed with the surreal challenges of adjusting to an afterlife that is disconcertingly similar to reality.
On board this luxury liner are a secretive young couple running away from something; a young wastrel with a drink problem; an autocratic society matron; a self-made and self-important businessman and MP; a parson serving in the East End and a charlady who has never travelled further than Margate. This motley group, all of whom are suffering from memory lapses, are the only passengers on board, the usual safety procedures are not in place and no staff can be found apart from the elusive Charon-esque steward, Scrubby (a touchingly weary David Brett). Most shocking of all is the way in which there is only one class of passenger, a microcosm of a classless society that’s as hard to adjust to as coming to terms with as being dead is.
Louche ne’er-do-well Tom Prior (Nicholas Karimi), the first to twig that something is up, gets a chance to redeem his wasted life when it seems too late (possibly with echoes of Ferenc MolnÃ¡r’s 1909 play Liliom). Carmen Rodriguez has an excellent way with a withering one-liner and could sneer for England as the dreadful Mrs Cliveden-Banks (who takes her hyphen very seriously). As her antithesis, Ursula Mohan wrings a considerable amount of humanity from Mrs Midget, a salt of the earth cleaning lady patronised within an inch of her life by Mrs Cliveden-Banks, but who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and whose bittersweet conclusion is the most poignant (even more so by the way that she’s so delighted by it).
Finborough resident designer Alex Marker has excelled himself with his sleek art deco saloon bar, complete with a grand drinks cabinet and curtained portholes. The cast are elegantly costumed by Gregor Donnelly and William Morris’s sound lends the right amount of eeriness.
Hill’s otherwise fluid pace is interrupted by dividing the three acts with two intervals, breaking up the claustrophobia. There are some startling moments when the tension is tightest, many of which involve the passionate lovers Henry and Ann (Tom Davey and Natalie Walter), the peripheral ‘halfways’ who are removed from the comedy and for whom the linen-suited ‘examiner’ has no time. Their concerns as to whether dogs remember their masters in heaven are entirely earnest as they cling onto each other as stowaways in this journey into the unknown.