Unusually for me, I went into the opening night of a show none the wiser about the material that was about to play out in front of me. Sure, I’m familiar with Noël Coward – I’ve seen enough versions of Blithe Spirit to last me a lifetime, and I played the character Simon in a production of Hay Fever many years ago, but Still Life & Red Peppers are part of a collection of more seldom-performed nine (originally ten) one-act plays known as Tonight at 8.30.
Although they were collated in the same stable of plays, the two pieces couldn’t have been more different. Where Still Life was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of its pace, Red Peppers had pace and pep in spades.
Still Life was the much more familiar of the two tales, having been adapted for the screen as the 1945 classic, Brief Encounter. Though it was well-executed by the actors, as a one-act play it was quite limiting, particularly for Kiera Long and Jonathan Redding as Laura and Alec, the lovers thwarted by circumstance. Just as they started to get into their stride, with Kiera in particular able to display a bit more of an emotional range, this sad, rather haunting play came to a desperate conclusion.
I appreciate that description makes it sound like there was no enjoyment to be had, but there was plenty to be found in the much more rampant romance between station master Albert Godby (a bang in-form Jamie Willimott) and station café mistress, Myrtle Bagot (played with relish and heart by Jan Farrar). Their characters, along with a bustling comic cameo from Jose Tarouca as a thirsty soldier, were crucial at times in preventing the pace of the piece almost grinding to a halt.
Red Peppers, on the other hand, almost seemed to come and go in a flash in the second half, opening with a pacy comedic song and dance number from fading duo George and Lily Pepper. From there, it never really let up until the piece came to a brisk and shambolic (deliberately, I must stress) conclusion.
Andy Lofthouse and Dawn Brindle as George and Lily were clearly having a whale of a time with the rich material, which allowed them to show off their skills as comic performers. They had the audience in the palms of their hands throughout, whether bickering with each other, the pompous theatre manager, or the apparently sozzled conductor. It was a much more joyous, effervescent play, and the perfect way to conclude this slightly divergent double-bill.
On a personal note, it was also lovely to see the wonderful Kiera Long on stage for the first time since appearing opposite me in Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero. That was way back in 2019, and though she didn’t say as much when I spoke to her afterwards, I could reasonably surmise that she’s spent the time in between pondering whether it’s worth getting back on stage if she’s not able to work alongside someone of my obvious eminence!
You can catch the remaining performances of Still Life & Red Peppers at the Sewell Barn Theatre on the 3rd and 4th March, followed by a further five performances between 8-11 March. Tickets are available via sewellbarn.org