Hilda and Virginia

Sarah Crowden in A Nightingale in Bloomsbury Square
Photo credit: Harry Livingstone

For one week only, Maureen Duffy’s double bill of A Nightingale in Bloomsbury Square and The Choice has called Jermyn Street Theatre its home. Telling the stories of two very different, but equally remarkable women, this pair of one-woman plays continues the Scandal season with the lives of Virginia Woolf and Abbess Hilda of Whitby (later canonised).

We begin in 1941, where Virginia Woolf is writing to both her sister and husband: she has decided that this is the end for her. In this case, the audience acts as a final caller to her home in Bloomsbury, allowing her to collect her thoughts one last time and reflect on her career & life. She remembers her acquaintance with Freud, ruminates on the patriarchy, war & her age – and thinks back over her relationships, notably those with Vita Sackville-West, as well as her choice of husband.

The script is rather poetic, and also feels reminiscent of Woolf’s own writing style – this approach is a natural choice for a person exploring their thoughts, especially at so critical a time in their life. Verity Johnson’s design is well thought out, providing an artistic & detailed setting for the play; Woolf’s study is full of her “children” (her books) and other reminders of her life story.

Sarah Crowden in The Choice
Photo credit: Harry Livingstone

The second, much shorter, play is set in 664 AD. Abbess Hilda lives in a Britain that has a troubled relationship with Europe – though in this case it is a question of which religion the country should be following. Stubbornly sticking to its own traditions, there is a growing insistence on adopting the Roman Catholic approach. What will they choose?

This is a story that isn’t at all well known, so I can see the appeal of including it for that reason – as well as the theme of friction between this island and mainland Europe. However, I feel like it might be a story better told if the events were played out rather than narrated by Hilda. In spite of its brevity, I have to admit that I didn’t particularly follow what Hilda was trying to tell us; her looking back on everything somehow doesn’t instil it with a lot of energy or purpose, and it ends up being far from memorable. By necessity, the set design is far simpler for this play, with amateurish wall-hangings covering the shelves, and only the large chest remaining by way of furniture.

Sarah Crowden in The Choice
Photo credit: Harry Livingstone

Sarah Crowden does well to take on the pair of roles, as they are two quite different characters and the two plays equate to around 90 minutes of stage time – and only her to do the talking. Perhaps it was a bit too much to take on for such a short period of time, as there was quite a bit of stumbling over lines (even some prompting was necessary); this was particularly prominent in The Choice, making it even more difficult to follow. Either a little more preparation time was required, or perhaps a pair of actresses should have worked on the double bill to spread the work – something to consider if it’s produced i the future. On the whole, though, Crowden does her best to fill the women with character, with Virginia Woolf edging it as the performance feels slightly more natural.

It is certainly an interesting couple of stories to pair together and include in this new season at Jermyn Street Theatre. I can see why they are performed in this order, however I still think it would be markedly better to switch them round. For one thing, the pairing is called Hilda and Virginia (not Virginia and Hilda), plus then it would be in chronological order. Sad though the ending is to A Nightingale in Bloomsbury Square, in contrast to the more spirited finale to The Choice, it feels like the more poetic choice of ending. The first play is also significantly more well conceived, so as it is the production ends on a bit of a damp squib.

Sarah Crowden in A Nightingale in Bloomsbury Square
Photo credit: Harry Livingstone

My verdict? An intriguing pairing, telling the stories of two very remarkable women – quality is inconsistent, but a decent production nonetheless.

Rating: 3*

Hilda and Virginia ran at the Jermyn Street Theatre from 27 February-3 March 2018.

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