The play is a satire in the Classical tradition with the characters’ names suggesting their personalities and through asides embraces the audience.
The play is set in the 60s and is very much of its time. The action revolves around Fred Midway whose only criteria in life is money and status and the manoeuvres he tries to achieve them. Thanks to Fred’s energetic success in selling insurances, his family has become, in its own opinion, a member of the burgeoning middle class. Unfortunately for Fred and his wife, Hilda, trouble erupts when their daughters, Eileen and Avril, spoil their chances riches and status with their matrimonial disasters.
Fred plunges vehemently into the fray with comic, yet Machiavellian, cunning to save the impending catastrophes!
Does it all work out in the end? Come and see the play to find out.
Did we really never have it so good - or is our view of Britain half a century ago now so clouded by nostalgia that our spectacles are permanently rose-tinted ? Those questions were raised by Stella Stone’s production of David Turner’s Semi-Detached, first produced at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in June, 1962, with the then unknown Leonard Rossiter in the leading role (later played by Laurence Olivier in the West End).
Turner aims to satirise the amorality of Britain’s affluent society in the late 1950’s through the ambitious social climbing of Fred Midway, an insurance salesman. Pillars of Dowlihull society, the Midways face escalating crises in the love lives of their three children. Aided by his doting wife Hilda, Fred frantically tries to maintain the family’s respectability, at least as far as the neighbours are concerned.
While there was much to admire in the production, ultimately the whole was less than the sum of its parts. Was it meant as a farce or a satire? Or is it a comedy of its time - not unlike Alan Bennett’s recently-revived gem, Enjoy - reflecting the social aspirations and class prejudices of its day, which, while dated, still has much to say to a contemporary audience ? The production never seemed quite sure quite how far to go for laughs and, falling between conflicting genres, did little to answer these questions.
The performances were all assured but while some went for ‘Commedia dell-arte’ - knowing winks, stylised facial expressions and sudden asides - others played their characters straight, as in the best traditions of farce. John Fisher’s minimal set, which suggested we were in for a non-naturalistic evening, had a quirky air of caricature but the best comedy is rooted in truth - and too much of the play struggled against reality.
Adrian Bowd’s Fred was a tour de force, striving with mounting desperation to preserve his place in the Model Railway club and the elite of Dowlihull society. He adopted the pantomime approach, all double-takes, asides, and jerky walks – acceptable as a style of playing but it takes a bit of getting used to. Also in the stylistic camp were Lynn Fernee as his wronged daughter Avril, who looked the sixties dolly-bird and had some fine comedic moments and Alex Lahoud, her ’errant’ husband, Nigel. He was meant to be a bit of a drip and so he was. Sean O‘Neill as Bob, the smooth-talking factory manager, played the stereotypical fancy-man with an unerring eye for detail. He has upset the Midway applecartby taking as his bit on the side their rebellious daughter Eileen, played by Jennifer Henley. This experienced and intelligent actress played straight and got laughs - as did Joyce Fisher, Nigel’s mother. Haughty and brisk, Mrs. Hadfield looked, spoke and acted like the early Margaret Thatcher and was just as scary.
Christine Murphy, as Hilda, Fred’s long-suffering and totally-trusting wife, did her best to cope with lines that could have come straight out of a script for Keeping Up Appearances and some of her mannerisms and intonation were pure Hyacinth Bucket. She captured the essence of the new materialism of the age and the now somewhat old-fashioned total faith in her husband’s ability. In short, she was amusingly believable.
For me, the performance of the evening was Gareth Brighton’s Tom, the rather gormless son. Playing a naive nineteen-year old totally straight, his delivery was spot on and the accent just right, as he spent almost the entire play trying to get someone to mend his trousers. In discovering and conveying to us the truth of his character, he was genuinely funny.
The contemporary music which introduced each new character was a nice touch, though it did slow down the pace in a piece which needed to be played at breakneck speed.
In the end, Fred’s manipulations have sorted it all out and as he slumps on the sofa with Hilda, we sense that even he is beginning to wonder a bit about whether the real values in life might lie beyond the short term amoral goals he has been so vigorously pursuing. If that was at the heart of Turner’s message, it came across, despite, rather than because of, the confusion of genres by which it was conveyed.