Ladies in Lavender is perhaps best known as the 2004 film, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Written and directed by Charles Dance, the film tells the tale of two sisters, Ursula and Janet, who live in a remote fishing village on Cornwall’s coast. When a handsome Polish violinist is washed up ashore, the two sisters nurse him back to health.
In 2012, Shaun McKenna adapted Dance’s screenplay for the stage, prompting a casting director’s nightmare; how to find a talented, trained violinist, who can also act?
Northenden Players have really hit the jackpot here; casting a young Russian virtuoso violinist, currently studying at the Royal Northern College of Music. Although Savva Sverev makes his acting debut as shipwrecked Andrea, it never shows. The play’s director, Eleanor Ford, deserves a great deal of credit for being able to fully harness Sverev’s acting potential, and his performance is equally as convincing as the experienced actors he shares the stage with.
Considering that the plot of Ladies in Lavender hangs on Andrea being a skilled enough violinist to train under the fictional composer, Boris Danilov, it should come as no surprise to discover that Sverev is a phenomenal violinist. His beautiful pieces of music are exquisitely played on the violin, and are deeply enthralling.
His music is the highlight of Ladies in Lavender, and witnessing such talent on the stage of an amateur theatre is a completely unexpected, utterly delightful treat.
Sadly, the play itself feels remarkably dated, and at times it becomes quite uncomfortable to watch, due to a perverse romance between Ursula and Andrea. This has nothing to do with the age difference between the characters, rather the fact that Ursula’s love is not reciprocated.
Ladies in Lavender is not a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Instead, Ursula’s relationship with Andrea becomes increasingly awkward, and borderlines kidnapping. The sisters deliberately withhold information from Andrea, tearing up an important letter, in order to keep him there. One character notably remarks “You seem to be more their prisoner than their guest”.
In today’s society, with attention being focused on consent, the story of these two coercive older ladies trying to keep a young man in their house leaves a bitter taste. It also meant I was unable to sympathise with either of them.
Despite my aversion to McKenna’s play, I can appreciate that Northenden Players did a good job of staging it. The performances from the entire cast are excellent. There is also an impressive application of projection, alongside perceptive sound design, to express the sense of being next to the sea.
Once again, Nigel Machin‘s exceptional set design maximises the limited space of the theatre. His flexible design allows the cast to create different locations by simply moving a wooden partition, hanging from the flies. There is also a platform, inventively mounted on rails, which is moved up and downstage for the purpose of being utilised as a bench, outside in the garden, or a bed in the bedroom scenes.
For an amateur theatre, the quality of productions at Northenden Players always exceeds expectations. I just believe they chose the wrong play this time around.