Three Tall Women - Review

On entering the studio theatre the audience could be forgiven for thinking that they had strayed into the world of Salvador Dali. Some of the usual seating had been removed and replaced by a variety of chairs each with a label attached. From the ceiling an assortment of chandeliers hung down lighting up a white line motif on the floor that gave the impression of a cracked mirror. On one side of the acting area stood a wardrobe with half a mirror embedded into it whilst on the other side a chair jutted out from the wall. This bizarre stage set, designed by NVT newcomer, Matt Johnson, appropriately reflected the surreal content of Edward Albee's play. As with several of his other later plays this work reflected his interest in the surreal and in experimentation.

One's eyes, having adjusted to the setting, then notice that the stage is already peopled. An old lady sleeps fitfully in a bed. A nurse/carer is sitting at a table playing patience whilst a young lady, later identified as a solicitor's clerk, sifts through documents.

The old lady wakes and begins a monologue, with only occasional interjections from the other characters, that skilfully depicts the confused mind of the 92 year old woman as she struggles with reminiscences of her life. The first Act ends with her having a stroke and slipping into a coma.

In the second act the bed is occupied by a mannequin wearing an oxygen mask and is watched over by two women. They are joined by the old lady, now sprightly and coherent, and it gradually transpires that they are in fact one and the same. They represent the old lady at different ages of her life – at 70, 52 and 26. Between them they question and examine the reminiscences and statements delivered in the first act. Sex, life and death are discussed and we learn that the woman is a person who has become hardened through the burden of having to be strong for the whole family.

The complex yet intriguing semi-autobiographical play was directed with assurance by Ian Black and superbly acted.

The part of the old lady is particularly challenging, especially in the first act as it is almost a monologue. Janet Hewlett-Davies' performance was yet another one that demonstrated her capacity for great acting. It was full of subtle nuances and fully captured the many facets of senility — self pitying tears, frustration, lightning switches from comic cunning with triumphant cackling to childlike dependency. She was equally as good in the second act as the rational seventy year old and greatly amused with her telling of her husband's generosity with jewellery and his bizarre and sexual way of presenting it to her.

Emma Prendergast gave strong contrasting portrayals with her two roles. As the nurse she was full of gentleness and patience that gave way, in the second act as the 52 year old, to a volatile nature. She was splendid in her anger regarding the rejection of her son, who she turned out of the house many years ago when she could not accept his homosexuality. He silently enters the room and sits at the bedside of the comatose figure, seeking the acceptance that will never come. Kieran Burke played this non-speaking role.

I was a little disappointed with Janna Fox's performance as the solicitor. She adopted a casual, throwaway style of delivery that I found difficult to hear. It did not help that she was static for most of the time on the other side of the stage with her back to me. No such reservations about her contribution in the second act. As the young alter ego she had the part nailed. The insecurity of youthfulness was there with the repeated assurances that she was a good girl. So was the hopefulness for her future that contrasted with the cynicism of the older pair. One felt her pain as she wailed "Are there to be no happy times" as she learnt from the others what was to befall her.

The play concludes with the old lady telling her that the happiest moment is "When it's all done. When we stop. When we can stop."

Barrie Jerram
20 July 2008