It is only natural to associate certain styles of theatre with certain eras, and therefore all the more fascinating to see a piece which, in many ways, exemplifies the theatricality of the 40s and 50s whilst covering so controversial a theme – Black Chiffon‘s underlying current of oedipal confusion will certainly have shocked in its time, although today its reticence to be truly bold just seems a little too vague when placed in a more modern, starker theatrical landscape. A shame, too, that this production can’t decide whether to depict or discard it’s era – the final result, while well acted and presented, ends up being a bit of a thematic muddle.
The plot of Black Chiffon revolves around a nightdress of said material – Alicia, a 50-something housewife, impulsively steals one while out shopping and is caught. Her reasons are at first vague, until it is revealed that she saw her son’s wife-to-be dressed in one – is an unspoken desire being unearthed, courtesy of a protracted conflict between the son and his staunchly British father? Unfortunately, according to this playwright, the answer seems truly that simple.
It’s not the Black Chiffon is poorly written – the language has an immediacy often lacking in pieces of the period, but any sense of depth or subtlety is often boldy blasted to one side for a rather direct and simplistic response, leaving no space for subtext. The company’s attempts to grapple with this lack of space to manouver therefore becomes their biggest stumbling block – pace shuttles between breakneck and torpid, with some of the cast attempting an almost Noel-Coward delivery while others play naturalistically alongside.
There is some effort made to ground the piece and romanticise the tone – a repeated piano motif, a detailed and very close set and an in-the-round staging thrust the action as close to the audience as possible and hem it in, but it isn’t enough to homogenise the disparate elements. The final result is critically lacking in that central uniting thrust, althought many of the aspects are to a very high quality: Maggie Daniel’s Alicia is excellently poised, if too closeted to really let on any psychological depth, as Amy Barnes’ Louise is a breath of fresh air, if slightly to vacuous to be given any credence. Mike Lees delivers another sumptuous set, and it does help a piece that occasionally flounders that every element and ornament are so well chosen – the decision to add a ceiling to close in the space does help tremendously with scenes that sometimes trickle instead of flowing fully.
It is truly a shame that Black Chiffon doesn’t manage to come together – it’s difficult to wholly fault any production angle, apart from the script: this may have been a successful piece in its time, but today’s audience is so inured to psychological trauma, so in love with psychological subtext that this could never have been more than a period piece – the production’s inability to place it so boldy simply damages the whole. This is a brave attempt, and it is worth reiterating the quality of most production angles, but it just doesn’t quite come together.