views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Jermyn Street Theatre
18th July 2015


Cassandra Thomas as Jane Lesere

Photography provided by the Jermyn Street Theatre

After the Great War, not everyone went home. While many of those who did survive bore scars externally, they weren't the only injuries suffered. In playwright Ashley G Holloway's stage debut Lesere, Monsieur Lesere (Leon Williams) is recuperating in France, looked after by his wife Madame Lesere (Cassandra Thomas). They grow vines, they have an authentically French sounding surname, they enjoy good local wine, but when John and Jane open their mouths, some very RP English comes tumbling out. The couple just don't quite belong to the setting in which we find them. Nonetheless, they seem to be plodding through life just fine one day at a time, until a mysterious stranger, George (Richard Atwill) unexpectedly befriends them and forces the couple to revisit moments from their past they'd rather forget.

Incomer George is a sort of chameleon. For amateur poet, Jane, he's a writer himself. For army man John, he was also an officer, and he too did his duty in the Somme. He comes crashing into their lives, installing himself in their home like a strange bowtie bedecked cuckoo, introducing discord into their marriage. Much of the first half is spent trying to work out who George is. He manipulates the couple - individually and together - but his strange arrival and sustained attack on their happiness suggest he's more than just a conman, he has a personal connection to them. Has one of them wronged him somehow? Or is he a manifestation dreamt up by one or both of them - an invisible mischief maker created by an ill mind? Maybe the entire construct is a fantasy, not just George?

There are many ways of interpreting Lesere and we never really get to the bottom of George's character, but for me, the story is more satisfying if you choose to believe George is a delusion. John has suffered at least one mental breakdown and is dealing rather badly with PTSD, and while he initially claims his wife's refusal to discuss the past doesn't bother him, you can't help but wonder if that's really true. John buries the memories of what went on during his service and Jane too is hiding her own grief. George hones in almost impossibly immediately on these repressed thoughts, wanting to play a dangerous game and humiliate his newfound chums. Whilst we don't know why he's there, we know he's creating an unbearable situation, with the dinner party from hell uncomfortable but engaging viewing.

Jane is very much the model of an Army wife, always reacting calmly and with decorum, refusing to be intimidated or scared unless the situation truly merits it. John is, by contrast, a weak character - always dependent on someone else to guide him. He may have been a leader once, those days are gone. George is slick, manipulative and yet charming when he wishes to be - a dangerous combination. Thomas delivers the best performance, but there's not much in it.

Mark Cunningham's sound design is clearly meant to create a sense of apprehension, but the initial shifts in tone feel jarring rather than sinister. It's made clear that there's something strange and worrying about George's arrival, but the sound feels like clumsy signposting. As for Ellan Parry's set design, it evokes the tranquil rural setting that it should, but the stage is too close to what is normally the front row. Jermyn Street Theatre has been reset in the round, and a strip has been left bare at the back for the comfort of the audience in those new seats, forcing the set to come too near to the other side. However director Donnacadh O'Briain doesn't seem to have given much thought to the knock-on impact on blocking. Far too often does the positioning of the actors and the closeness of the props meant that expressions are completely lost from sight. Bret Yount's stage fighting is unconvincing - the blocking obscuring things we need to see, but allowing the awkward movement to be noticed.

There's a lot to like about this intriguing new drama, but Holloway doesn't explain everything and we're left unsure of whether he's held those answers back deliberately, or just hasn't decided himself. Despite some flaws with its execution, you can't help but be drawn in.

Lesere opened on 7th July and runs until 1st August 2015 at Jermyn Street Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly (Piccadilly, Bakerloo)

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