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AVS Productions Presents the World Premiere:

When The Lilac Blooms, My Love



by Jane Huxley


Directed by Simon Beyer


Leicester Square Theatre

14 April – 1 May 2010









A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


This debut play by novelist Jane Huxley centres on the facades that we all tend to fall back on when life hasn’t given us all we’d hoped for. It also seems to divide people into two categories, those who serve and those who look to be served - another age old dynamic that is all too recognisable, even now, in our so called era of self-reliance. Then there is that old adage, in this case an ironic one, given the fact that the playwright is a working author: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ something which we are all actively and relentlessly encouraged to do more than ever in today’s consumerist, keeping up appearances culture.

When the Lilac Blooms... tends to function in the same way that a good novel would, feeding us information about its characters bit by bit so that in hindsight, we know much more about them then we did at the beginning. While understanding the characters motivations better doesn’t necessarily mean we like them more, it does allow for much recognition and post play reflecting on just why we’re attracted to and/or profess to love the people we do.

The play’s opening finds Nicky (Polly Banwell) and her boyfriend Darius (Steve Smith) in Victoria Station awaiting a train to Brighton. Nicky is five months pregnant, but her mother Simona (Sally Farmiloe-Neville) and step-father Milton (Aldan Stephenson) don’t know it yet. As she and Darius are both LSE students, Nicky’s pregnancy is a dilhemma for that reason, and also, because she has her heart set on Darius and he is merely, doing ‘the right thing’ by accompanying her. In Brighton, retired school teacher Miss Mackensie (Judy Cornwell) sits in the living room of Simona and Milton’s show house, where she is a full time boarder, talking to her pet parakeet Pericles about her living arrangements sharing a home with her landlords. But the lilac tree in the garden is not the only thing that is about to bloom, for when Darius meets Nicky’s glamorous middle aged mother, Simona, who lost a young man she’d loved in her youth, after which builder husband Milton made an ‘honest woman’ of her, a fast-flowering bud of desire begins to grow between them.

A rather awkward opening found Polly Banwell as Nicky and Steve Smith as boyfriend Darius conferring at the back of the theatre and the audience trying to acclimatise themselves, as the couple literally, brought the play forward, moving to one side of the theatre to continue the scene, walking through the exit door on its conclusion. This brought us to the stage, where Judy Cornwell as Miss Mackensie was confiding in her parakeet Pericles. Although Miss Mackensie seems a typically lovable OAP on the surface, there is actually much more to her than the other characters give her credit for. With women, this is often the case, if they are out of the fashion/man drawing stakes because they are too plump, too plain and/or obviously, over forty, (and I’m being generous with that number). So Miss Mackensie has a built in smoke screen through which she can perceive the goings on around her. Seasoned actress Judy Cornwell makes a good job of her Miss Mackensie, letting the audience know from the get go that she is a much more astute and, experienced lady than many would assume.

Former fashion model turned actress Sally Farmiloe-Neville is equally up to her task as polished, pseudo high class Italian-English wife and mother Simona, who still has the power to turn male heads despite her advancing years, and is, however covertly, well aware of that. To Huxley’s credit, she hasn’t stooped to putting her amazingly fit and girlish Simona in young women’s fashions, a tendency which might brand her as common or crude. Instead, we perceive Farmiloe-Neville’s Simona as an impeccably groomed, knowing woman of style, who’s not only aware of what type of negligee turns her husband on, but of what is appropriate and elegant for a woman of her age, and in her own mind, class. Farmile-Neville has great deportment and carries off this aspect of her character very convincingly. So much so, that she makes Darius’ first declarations of passion towards her seem understandable. If her character seems a trifle one-dimensional, it might only be because she is meant to seem that way to hide her more secret side, the one housing her dreams and/or acts of guiltless pleasure. With Simona, as the capable Farmiloe-Neville plays her, it’s all down to her perceived level of entitlement and her ability to maintain her sex appeal and appeal to her husband’s sympathetic nature and rescuer complex. Milton is your proverbial ‘I’m not worthy of such a goddess’ type of guy.

That said, Steve Smith as Darius makes his desire for Simona apparent while enabling the audience to spot the opportunist lurking beneath his hurt little boy facade, which Nicky’s step father Milton spots immediately and worries about thereafter. With good reason, as Darius literally seems to get away with murdering his family because of his on the surface, well meaning, pseudo poetically tragic persona.  Darius is the guy we women would all love to hate, if only we weren’t so magnetically attracted to him! Smith does an excellent job of letting the audience in on his character’s game while keeping the self-serving (Simona) and masochistic (Nicky, who follows in her step-father’s footsteps) accepting his ploys at face value.

Aldan Stephenson turns in a likeable, sympathy and possibly, empathy generating performance as the diligent, ever supportive (and tolerant) hard working builder husband of Simona, who is herself something of a ‘bird in a gilded cage’.  I once knew a man of a similar occupation who broke his back in order to keep a less lofty Simona in the style to which she was determined to stay accustomed to, despite her upper middle aged years, so I know of whence I speak. In his case, it wasn’t worth it, but Stephenson makes you hope it is in his case, simply because he wishes for it so, though it’s been his rough luck to have rescued his prize when she was on the rebound. The fact that Simona continues to ‘bait the hook’ via her feminine accoutrements and wiles can only mean that Milton’s thinking that she will one day leave him will invariably come true. Darius’ off the cuff remark about Simona being with an ‘oaf’ seems to be drawn right from Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending.

Polly Banwell handles her scenes as the bright and breezy Nicky we meet at the beginning of the play very well, but stumbles a bit during her character’s moments of extreme anger and rage nearer the end of the play. Granted, enacting scenes of such high emotion prove challenging for any actor, but the night I was in attendance, her anger stretched credulity and so, could do with further directorial guidance. That said, in her scenes with Stephenson as her step father Milton and those with Cornwell as Miss Mackensie in which the characters interact on varying levels, Banwell shines.

Designer Fly Davis had his work cut out for him here, as the play requires a living room well furnished enough to suggest a house with abundant room, as well as a working staircase and garden, where various scenes are set. Though Davis has done his best with the stage room available to him, it took me a while to get over the compressed feeling the set initially inspired, though Simon Beyer’s attentive directing enabled any initial misgivings I might have had about it to eventually evaporate by virtue of the fine performances of his cast.

If I’ve overused words like ‘facade’ and ‘pseudo’ here, it’s appropriate, as facades abound and function as shields in this play, providing something to hide behind for those characters who are only kidding themselves about the stability of their relationships, which ironically, seems to be everyone apart from the lovable but ultimately wise, Miss Mackensie.

In the programme, Jane Huxley claims she’d be satisfied with a couple of positive reviews for this, her first play. But frankly, I think the play, its director Simon Beyer, present cast and set/costume designer Fly Davis could all do with some expansion, and an eventual transfer, to a larger theatre.

Leicester Square Theatre
Mon – Sat. 7:30pm
Wed – Sat matinees 2:30pm
£25.00 - £35.00


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