For the final production in their season of LGBTQ+ plays in the Lauriston studio, Altrincham Garrick have produced a masterful retelling of a play that is little known on this side of the Atlantic. Not only is it extremely funny and touching, it should also be seen as an important milestone in the development of queer theatre history. For the first time it allowed gay characters to be portrayed as three dimensional beings, rather than the troubled stereotypes which had populated the theatre prior to its production.
We arrive in the eponymous Long Island resort with Eva (Madeleine Healey), recently divorced from husband George, she is emotionally lost and confused and still grieving the loss of her son Lenny six years earlier. She meets Lil (Phillipa Shellard) whilst walking on the beach and immediately strikes up a friendship which gradually turns to a deeper love as the play unfolds. She has found Bluefish Cove, a summer retreat for an intimate group of lesbians, a place where they can live honestly and be true to themselves, without the harsh judgement of the wider world in the early 1980’s America.
Their lives and loves have entwined over the previous thirty years, and we watch their characters interact and cope with an unfolding tragedy within their midst. Amongst this Sapphic community we meet Dr Kitty (Ros Greenwood) a closeted feminist writer and her girlfriend/secretary Rita (Laura Patterson); Sculptor/Sculptress (heavily debated) Annie (Meg Brassington) and her loving, warm partner Rae (Melanie Beswick) and finally the blue-blooded Sue (Brigid Hemingway) with her (much) younger lover Donna (Patti Linnett). It is writer Jane Chambers most autobiographical work, the parallels with her own life and untimely death are starkly obvious. The fact that these characters are lesbian is central to the plot but almost incidental in their lives on stage, they are fully rounded with their sexuality only being a part of who they are. When seen from the perspective of 2023 this is the norm, but it was a revolutionary step fifty years ago to show a gay character onstage or in film as happy, healthy and well adjusted, Chambers was in the vanguard of this shift in attitudes and her untimely death in 1983 at the age of 46 robbed the theatre of a unique voice.
Although Helen Horridge is making her debut as Director with this production, she brings over two decades of theatrical experience with her and makes an assured and impressive debut in the chair. Making full use of the tiny Lauriston Studio space to recreate the vast open beaches of Long Island would be an impossible task, one she wisely eschews in favour of one room set with in which the drama unfolds. The restriction actually works strongly in favour of the piece, allowing the audience to concentrate fully on character and dialogue throughout the two hours. She also brings out the humour in this piece to great effect, despite its sombre central storyline and underlying political themes, this play is hilarious in its execution with the early scenes creating constant laughter in the sell out opening night audience.
The complex web of friendships and affairs is clearly delineated and Horridge allows each character to display their individuality without any of the obvious lesbian tropes that a less sophisticated director may employ. So, we see each of the characters as fully rounded and gently exemplifying many of the issues that the gay community experienced when the play was written. Rae is disenfranchised by the law and unable to see her children after leaving her husband for Annie, explaining how the law will punish her for her decision to a confused and naive Eva; Kitty is frightened that if she is ‘outed’ it will mean the end of her nascent literary career; and the ultimate indignity is visited on Eva at the conclusion with her exclusion by the family of her partner; she has no legal status. This could all feel like an outdated relic from a bygone era, but this production shows it as a powerful indictment of societal chauvinism, as well as a vindication for the changes that have occurred in the ensuing half century.
The performances are uniformly excellent; Linnett providing the comedic relief as the gold-digging Donna whilst Brassington and Beswick are the warm heart of the group. Greenwood gives a nuanced performance as Kitty, a soft core concealed behind a forceful feminism. However, this is a love story between Eva and Lil, with both Healey and Shellard give superb performances in the central roles. Shellard brings the full range of emotion to Lil, by turns flirtatious, manipulative and sexual before an extraordinary final scene which fully displays the frustration of her character and her situation. Healy perfectly encapsulates the doe eyed innocence of Eva which allow the early scenes an almost farce like quality but is able to switch focus to display a more steely determined side to her nature by the conclusion. Her closing scene is almost reminiscent of Ibsen’s Nora as she leaves Bluefish Cove with a new sense of herself and her place in the world.
In the current harsh commercial climate for theatre, Altrincham Garrick are to be applauded for their decision to programme a season of LGBTQ+ works and judging by this production it was a risk worth taking. This is a beautiful piece of writing, political without ever being polemic, moving and extremely funny to boot. The best non-professional production I have seen this year so far, it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and I urge you to get to the Lauriston Studio before it concludes on Sunday. https://www.altrinchamgarrick.co.uk/shows/last-summer/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 6th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: