Does anybody else remember the BBC's adaptation of The Borrowers? I absolutely loved it. Everybody goes on about Narnia, but The Borrowers was the one for me. The main reason was that I found Penelope Wilton fascinating. And, to be honest, I've had a real thing for her ever since. Consequently, whenever she is performing in London, it is pretty much imperative that I get a ticket.
I'm not a terribly organised person, so I had to make two attempts at seeing Taken at Midnight! The first one was aborted because they could only offer me Gallery seats. The Gallery at the Theatre Royal is notorious for its discomfort and poor view, so I decided to leave it. If I couldn't get Day Seats I simply wouldn't see it, because I also wasn't going to spend £59 on a show. There's only been a few occasions when I have paid full price to see a show and the last time was when Angela Lansbury was in Blithe Spirit. As much as I like Penelope Wilton I still didn't want to spend full whack on a play about the Nazis; so I decided I would just have to survive and miss out this time.
Then, Laura-Jane Matthewson and I went to see The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (what a silly title!) and I realised I COULD NOT miss seeing Penelope Wilton on stage. The film is fine, but contains mostly lazy performances apart from Celia Imrie (naturally!) and Penelope Wilton. She really gives a masterclass: her performance is energetic, funny, succinct and there is a moment when she makes the tiniest reaction to something Judi Dench says that really is sublime. Just a little wince and you see everything she has created fall away. Perfect.
That was the moment when I knew that if I did not see Penelope Wilton on stage, I would actually regret it. The show was already in it's last week, so literally the next day (the actual joy of being self-employed!) I succumbed to Gallery seats and saw Taken at Midnight.
First of all, the seats are not comfortable! Fortunately it wasn't very busy, so I was able to spread myself around; but I shall not be sitting up there in a full house! However, the view is excellent (although, I obviously missed a lot of wincing subtleties) and the sound was incredible. I have sat in smaller theatres and struggled to hear the performers, but in this instance the projection was top notch. I suppose there might have been microphones, but I would prefer to think the actors just had great technique. In fact, I think this might be the case, because when David Yelland came on he was almost impossible to understand. Ironically, the only poster I noticed outside was saying how fantastic he was!
As for the play. It's a really interesting topic: the pre-war Nazis and their incarceration of Communists, dissenters, political opponents etc. The plot focuses on their taking of Hans Litten and his mother's quest to find him. It's a true story and therefore one that needs to be handled sensitively and accurately. The problem with this is that Mark Hayhurst's script becomes bogged down with exposition and rarely allows the characters to explore the plot themselves. It seems a bit odd to have a character telling you what happened when you've employed ten actors that could just show you.
In the first half there were some searing scenes between the three prisoners: Carl von Ossietzky (Mike Grady, more famous for Last of the Summer Wine! It was quite incredible to see him play someone so passionate and forthright.), Erich Muhsam (Pip Donaghy) and Litten (Allan Corduner). Whilst wordy, their scenes fizzed and popped with articulate vitriol and political argument. When one of them was executed, I think the injustice was keenly felt throughout the auditorium. It's a slightly manipulative plotting move, of course, because you then become even more anxious about Hans and his mother being reunited outside of the prisons.
There is a scene when they are allowed to meet, but inside a prison and thinking about it is making me very uncomfortable. The way the mother just held onto Hans' chair once he'd left really reminded me of the way my Great Uncle's wife ran to his coffin at his funeral. I understood a lot in just that small moment and I don't think I've ever engaged in a brief second of theatre the way I did then. The silence was devastating and even from the rafters you could understand everything that Wilton's character was experiencing. I think I grew up a bit watching that scene!
What always amazes me about Wilton's performances is the candid mix of strength and vulnerability. Here she was playing a woman who was standing up to some of the highest ranking Gestapo officers (even wrote a letter to Hitler!), is, in fact, a stronger woman than most of the men around her; and yet you knew she was driven by love. Pure love. What a combination. The great thing about Penelope Wilton is that she never lets either ball drop; she juggles both effortlessly. Weirdly, I'm now kind of describing my Mum, which might explain why I like Penelope Wilton so much! My Gran is Angela Lansbury... I knew that the first time I watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks!
Interestingly, it's not until the end of the play that you (or maybe just me!) notice that there is only one female character. I think that has a lot to say about the writing of the piece and I hope this becomes a part that we see a lot more older actresses playing: Sian Thomas, Lesley Manville, Juliet Stevenson (all in twenty odd years time, I assume) would all excel in it.
Penelope Wilton also does something, that, for me, is fundamental. She smiles at the curtain call. Her character went through quite an ordeal, but as the audience was applauding the actress, the actress was able to acknowledge and accept their praise. Not smiling at a curtain call (unless it's for Journey's End where they all die, for instance) is essential in my eyes.