Second To Nun

MISTRESS OF NOVICES at the Piccadilly Theatre, London W1.

The story of Bernadette Soubirous, the French peasant girl who saw the vision of the Virgin Mary in a grotto in Lourdes was brought to the screen in 1942. To the best of my knowledge, I can’t recall any previous play being written on this subject, and John Kerr the author is to be congratulated on tackling successfully what must have been a difficult subject to translate into stage terms.

His play tells the story of Bernadette from the time of her retreat into a nunnery until her death. He has used the device of placing a nun on either side of the stage, in the manner of a Greek chorus, standing at lecterns from which they read various dates and happenings to introduce each scene.

We are shown her arrival where she is introduced to the novices and staff by the Mother General of the Convent of Nevers.
Bernadette is requested to tell them about her visitations, and then is asked to answer questions from the women present. She is told that the subject of her visions need no longer be discussed, but as one had expected it is mentioned often during the course of the play.

Rita Tushingham in a traumatic scene from ‘Mistress of Novices’. Photograph: Morris Newcombe

The central plot deals with the inability of the Mistress of Novices to accept Bernadette’s visions as being truthful. Having devoted her entire life to the service of God, she cannot accept that an ignorant peasant girl would be chosen for this honour. In showing the emotional conflict between these two women, the author has drawn two perfect portraits. Bernadette, firm in her belief, manages to over come her physical ailments and conform to the harsh discipline of the nunnery. On the other hand, her antagonist is at times a soul in torment, beset by her doubts.

Rita Tushingham returns to the stage after too long an absence to give a most touching performance of natural humility as Bernadette. Her death scene is an exceptionally moving moment. Barbara Jefford makes a striking figure of the title role, whether handing out penances to the novices or demanding further proof from Bernadette on the subject of her visions. Another welcome appearance comes from Margaretta Scott as the Mother Superior. The clarity of her voice should serve as an object lesson to all aspiring young actresses.

Two Right Royal Evenings

CROWN MATRIMONIAL at the Haymarket Theatre.

I once knew an obscure silent film star whose every other sentence involved famous people. She’d speak of meeting Scott Fitzgerald at a dinner given by the King of Spain, but on asking further questions about them, she had very little else to say. I was reminded of her whilst watching CROWN MATRIMONIAL as the first scene set in Marlborough House has the Queen Mary asking her son, on his return from the continent, “How was George of Greece, and did you see Carol of Rumania?” This sort of name dropping is all very well provided it is going to lead somewhere, but apart from a few words, nothing further is mentioned of these famous personages.

Likewise I felt at times as if I were visiting Madame Tussauds, so much did these players resemble the real people in face and dress. Although the plot is familiar, interest is held throughout by the course of events and the dialogue given to the stage Royals. Who can presume how these characters would act and talk when in the privacy of their homes. The author Royce Ryton has used his imagination well. Aided by Wendy Hiller, portraying Queen Mary, one senses the feeling of royalty and grandeur in her every move.

Peter Barkworth playing Edward 7th reminded me of that monarch’s smile and warmth, whilst Amanda Reiss received an ovation on her first entrance for her uncanny resemblance to our present Queen Mother at that time. I was less happy with Andrew Ray’s impersonation of George 6th, feeling he was too young for the role, but in his one big scene he was extremely moving. Lastly the costumes and sets are first rate, and just how I would imagine the interior of a Royal household would look.

I AND ALBERT at the Picadilly Theatre

When one reads of delays of an opening night, hears stories of early previews over-running by 45 minutes, and of the leading man being taken ill and the understudy taking over at short notice, then the signs are surely there that ‘something is rotten in the State of Denmark’, or in this case at the Piccadilly Theatre.

What possessed that fine director John Schlesinger to become involved in all this? I would call it ‘a pageant with music’ as it turned out to be the most talkative musical I’ve yet come upon. The musical score manages to range the entire field of music in one evening, commencing with an oompah pa song about naughty London in the early 1800’s (did I detect some rather risque lyrics well hidden under the blaring orchestra?), a syncopated modern style tune that owed a lot to the song ‘The best is yet to come’, all the way to a tender ballad sung by Prince Albert. The title song ‘I and Albert’ is tuneful, and the ‘Victoria and Albert Waltz’ is a haunting theme used when they first meet. Somewhere in the second half Disraeli stops the show whilst performing conjuring tricks and singing with great panache the sung ‘When You Speak with a Lady’. But this song is out of place with the character and plot so that it takes several minutes to settle back into ‘the plot’ … and oh how that plot goes on and on without really reaching any point. Polly James plays Victoria competently enough, ranging from young womanhood to old age, though one wonders what became of her middle years. At one time the character she portrays was aged around the late 50’s, but there she was giving an impersonation of a woman of 70 – no in-between, alas.

Sven Bertl Taube makes a handsome leading man as Prince Albert. He has a good singing voice and is suitably stiff and solemn as the part calls for. Aubrey Woods and Lewis Fiender play two roles each during the evening as Victoria’s ministers and bring light comic relief to the proceedings. The show would be lost without the two stairways placed on either side of the stage and a great deal of the action is performed on them which involves the cast running about on them ’til one gets almost dizzy watching. After Albert dies, the stage is draped in black mourning, both costumes and curtains are black and there is a feeling of ‘death in the family’ which is almost prophetic of the show itself.