Upstairs at the Gatehouse plays host to Time Productions, as they bring their latest play After The Ball to the stage for a limited run. The play moves backwards and forwards between 1914 and either 1971 or 1973 (the programme disagrees from the author’s notes to the production information page), following a family through world wars, political upheaval and personal traumas.
William Randall is in his late 80s, living in what is presumably a nursing home with dementia. A memory is triggered by one of the nurses confirming that Joyce is on her way; William sees the shadows of his past around him, and suddenly he’s back in 1914 with his friend Albert, more interested in politics than romance. Despite his protestations, Albert insists on introducing him to Blanche and they’re soon man & wife. Happiness doesn’t last for too long, however, as William signs up behind his new wife’s back, heading off to war even though it goes against his socialist idealogies; after an injury and a period of convalescence at home, he ends up returning to the Front, leaving Blanche for a long time to give birth to & begin to raise their daughter, Joyce. When he does return, Joyce is the apple of his eye and she begins to follow in his political footsteps – but where does Blanche fit in all this?
The writer, Ian Grant, places a great deal of emphasis on female emancipation and the fact that the show opened on International Women’s Day, however I don’t see the link as strongly as he does, I’m afraid. Yes, it’s got a definite political core, and “votes for women” gets trotted out early on – plus Joyce represents continual progress in women’s rights & new freedoms – but it’s a bit misleading to try and make it into something it’s not. In actual fact the play is the story of William Randall – a rather repugnant man, who ultimately seems like quite a hypocrite.
By constantly switching from one time period to another, it makes the story unnecessarily confusing to follow. “The arc of the story is emotional, not chronological”, says Grant, however I can’t feel that at all – the order makes no sense and would be much better off as a flashback that did progress in chronological order. It’s also quite repetitive, so could easily lose some text and cut the running time down to make it a straight-through affair, rather than breaking for an interval.
I’m also slightly confused as to the ages of the cast. Having Randall step back into his memories is a great idea, as it is him having these flashbacks and experiencing these emotions anew – but having an older woman playing Blanche (rather than someone roughly of her age in 1914) makes no sense to the narrative. Especially as she’s in Edwardian costume throughout, rather than changing at least slightly from period to period – Blanche was supposed to be political herself, after all. If it was the pair of them reminiscing it would be fine, but as he’s presumably outlived her it just doesn’t work.
Stuart Fox is particularly impressive as he switches from William in his later years to his younger selves, and then back again – a shell of what he used to be. Jack Bennett provides some light relief as ‘Jack the Lad’ Albert, but it is Emily Tucker who really stands out as the progressive Joyce. She is truly fearless and intent on living her life in her own way, and Tucker imbues her with a credible spirit and a real fire.
My verdict? A play that isn’t quite sure what it wants to say, yet still a little repetitive – a standout performance from Emily Tucker will keep you interested.
After The Ball runs at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 24 March 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.