The lives of two spinster sisters are disrupted by the sudden arrival of a washed up violinist in this endearing insight into family relationship and love that unites generations. Under the direction of Robin Lefevre, Shaun McKenna’s adaptation of Ladies in Lavender transforms the Theatre Royal’s stage into a quaint Cornish cottage that is shared by rivalry, love, loss and two elderly ladies.

Exhibiting all the symptoms of sisterhood; bickering, competition and jealousy, Ursula (Hayley Mills) and Janet (Belinda Lang) are reminiscent of two squabbling children. However, an overriding sense of love and affection, along with a knitting obsession, sets the tone for this play. Through the close attention to detail demonstrated in the actresses’ performances, Janet and Ursula work together as well as apart. A self assured and conservative Janet complements a pensive and young-at-heart Ursula; like the boiled egg and pilchards of Janet’s pie, it shouldn’t work but it does.

A strong supporting cast of comical and mysterious figures test this sisterly relationship before the eyes of the audience. However, whilst the comic timing of Carol Macready’s eccentric and jolly Dorcas lights up almost every scene, there appeared to be missing ingredients where other characters were concerned. Sympathy is quickly built for the mysterious Andrea (Robert Rees), who sustained an impressive accent throughout, the evident chemistry between himself, Ursula and subsequently the audience, though moments of high tension became somewhat unbelievable due to an under developed and sometimes erratic characterisation of this figure. Helping Andrea realise his musical ambitions and taking away the dreams of the infatuated sisters, cosmopolitan collides with Cornish in the form of a nosy local doctor and his violin and an elusive artist. Another romantic dimension, albeit unrequited, Robert Duncan’s hopelessly desperate Dr Mead and Abigail Thaw’s sophisticated Olga provide some light hearted relief to the serious events of the seaside cottage.

Janet’s stint on the piano leaves much to be desired in comparison to the talented Andrea, who delights the ears of the characters and the audience with the majestic sound of the violin strings. By entwining these tones with the crashing sound of the waves John Leonard provides this sleepy Cornish town with its own melody. Disappointingly with such a strong plot focus on the music, it was unclear whether the audience were indeed recipients of a live performance or subject to a recorded rendition; mystery in this technical area was perhaps a step too far.

Through her innovative stage design, Liz Ascroft succeeded in creating a whole Cornish village within one unique set. Characters weave in and out of their home, into the garden; occasionally venturing onto the rocky shoreline. The highs and lows of the production are kept literally close to home, perhaps explaining the excitement brought about by their foreign visitor when he arrives in this otherwise claustrophobic environment. With a little help from the lighting team, headed by Mick Hughes, each set is bought to the forefront, the personalities of the sisters stamped on every location; home to the nostalgic fairy tale that is played out before the audience.

As Andrea’s final violin performance seeps from the wireless, the sisters unite in their grief for the young man’s companionship and the production draws to a close. Like the string music itself, this production moves at the steady heart rate of a small Cornish village. Interruptions to the solitude are rare, but effective, bringing the themes of competition and love to the fore. When the curtains fell, one could imagine the sisters continuing in their pattern of everyday life of which the Royal’s audiences gained a brief, but moving snapshot.

Lauren Wilson and Kiran Benawra

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1 Comment

  1. Sam Mitchell
    June 24, 2012 at 17:53 — Reply

    An absolutely stunning piece of theatre, one of the best plays I have seen your years. I regularly go to the West End, The National Theatre, Royal Court etc but I’ve rarely seen a piece so moving! The audience laughed and laughed and most had tears at the end.
    The cast, set and direction ARE SUBLIME!

    I disagree with the reviewers comments above about Robert Rees as Andrea. One has to remember that this character has come from Poland in 1937. A country heavily occupied by the Nazis. You would have to be a strong willed person, suspicious of anyone and passionate about your craft, the violin, to embark on a journey to America in those difficult times, particularly if you were Jewish. Rees’ characterisation, accent and chemistry with Hayley Mills is perfect. He brings charm to the role but also the arrogance of a very talented musician. His mannerisms and accent are spot on.

    The reviewers also comment on claustrophobia as a ‘theme’ of the piece. I think the word they are actually looking for is ‘isolation’. These sisters live in a tiny village down in Cornwall in 1937, no television, internet or life like today.
    The arrival of Andrea, a good looking, mysterious, young stranger transforms their lives.

    The realisation that Ursula (Hayley Mills) has never experienced love until now as all the men went of to war is heartbreaking! Hayley Mills is outstanding.

    A truly beautiful piece, go see for yourself. It will stay with me for some time.

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