Review: After the Ball at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

The aptly named Time Productions have set themselves an ambitious challenge in staging Ian Grant’s After the Ball, which covers several decades in the life of one family. Opening just before World War 1, it’s the story of William and Blanche, a young couple brought together by friends and shared political views, but with little else in common. Then, despite having spoken out frequently against the war, William voluntarily joins the army and heads to Belgium, where he falls in love with another woman. Back home, meanwhile, Blanche is left alone to raise their daughter, and even after he comes back she’s never able to forgive her husband for his betrayal.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

The play, directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, opened on International Women’s Day, and at the start there are some promising discussions about votes for women that suggest we’re about to see a play with some strong female characters. And admittedly Blanche’s friend Margery, who chooses not to marry and later goes off to travel the world on her own, fits the bill – as does daughter Joyce, who grows up to be a leading light in the Labour Party and refuses to let a cheating husband get in her way.

Blanche, on the other hand, loses any independent spirit she once had the minute she gets married, spends their first few months together pleading with William not to go to war – and when he does, she ends up a sad, bitter woman stuck in a loveless marriage and unable to let go of the past. We don’t get to see how she copes without him because we’re in Belgium watching William, first getting wounded and then having an affair. On his return, any hope we might have that Blanche somehow gets the last laugh gradually fades as the same conversations and recriminations come up again and again. The result is, sadly, a script that becomes repetitive and characters that begin to feel a bit annoying; we even go back to the start of their marriage at one point in Act 2, for no obvious reason, to replay the argument again.

The same actors play the characters throughout their lives, which means in some cases they’re faced with the challenging task of playing both a 20-something and an 80-something. Stuart Fox is poignantly impressive as a fragile, elderly William, suffering with dementia and lost in fragmented recollections of his life – but both he and Julia Watson as Blanche struggle to differentiate clearly between their younger and older selves, and it’s down to the other characters and the historical context to help us locate where we are in the story. There is, however, a welcome injection of energy from Emily Tucker as Joyce, determined to live life on her own terms despite her mother’s disapproval, and Elizabeth Healey is a refreshing voice of reason as both Margery and Marguerite.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

In a programme note, writer Ian Grant explains that After the Ball is “a story of resilience in the face of personal trauma … of political and social bonds that get stretched beyond breaking point … of female liberation and political emancipation”. That’s a lot to tackle in two hours, but unfortunately we never really get to explore any of it in much depth. Nor do we feel much connection to the characters – again, with the possible exception of Joyce – which means a twist ending has far less impact than it should. All in all, sadly After the Ball is an interesting idea that begins well but never quite delivers on its early promise.

After the Ball is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 24th March.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Tiny Dynamite at the Old Red Lion Theatre

In Abi Morgan’s Tiny Dynamite, one of the characters relates an anecdote about a man who throws the remains of a sandwich off the top of the Empire State Building. By the time it reaches ground level, it’s gained so much velocity that it kills a woman walking past.

This theme of “freak accidents” runs throughout the play, which muses on the ways that sometimes the smallest and most innocuous of actions can have a dramatic impact. The story begins by telling us that one of the characters, Anthony, was struck by lightning as a child. But was it pure chance, or – as his friend Luce argues – the result of a set of circumstances that, when combined, made it an accident waiting to happen?

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Now grown up, Anthony (Niall Bishop) and Luce (Eva-Jane Willis) are on holiday. This, we learn, is an annual event – part of a routine that involves Luce helping the mentally fragile Anthony get back on his feet. Theirs seems an uneasy relationship; Luce’s need to help sees her alternate between patronising and tough love, and both are haunted by the loss some years ago of a mutual friend who they both loved. Into this odd set-up steps the unsuspecting Madeleine (Tanya Fear), a free spirit who never stays in the same place for more than a few months. When both Anthony and Luce fall for her, it seems that history is repeating itself – but first the two friends need to make sense of what happened the last time. This story is revealed slowly, piece by piece, finally coming together as the play reaches its emotional climax.

In a play that’s all about vulnerability, Niall Bishop and Eva-Jane Willis give strong performances as Anthony and Luce, two very different characters who each grapple with their problems in their own way. Anthony is fully aware of his undefined mental illness and makes no attempt to hide it, frequently resorting to violence against himself or others to vent his frustration. Luce, on the other hand, firmly believes she has her life under control, with a “boring” job in risk assessment and a tiny, tidy flat – but the cracks are beginning to show, and there’s a tension in her frame that reveals just how hard she’s having to work to hold everything together. For both of them, their friendship appears more of a duty than a pleasure, until the arrival of Tanya Fear’s Madeleine – lively, confident and unimpeded by bad memories – forces them to face up to the reason they’re so broken, and attempt to move on. The impact of the encounter isn’t only one-way, though; stepping into their world alerts Madeleine to the loneliness that’s an inevitable result of her transient way of life.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

David Loumgair’s production creates an air of suspense and danger throughout; a cluster of bare lightbulbs hangs above a stage surrounded by water, and each new scene is introduced by flickering lights and the ominous crackle of electricity. The deceptively simple set, designed by Anna Reid, makes ingenious use of the limited space available – the wooden deck is revealed to have two large under-floor compartments, from which the characters produce newspapers, drinks and towels, and there’s even an area where they go swimming more than once.

Despite the title, Tiny Dynamite never quite explodes but rather quietly simmers before boiling over in its final moments. As the play ends, we’re left with the sense that not everything is resolved – it would be unrealistic, after all, to suggest a few weeks one summer could erase years of trauma – but that the three characters are now at least in a position to try and move on, and to deal with whatever consequences life throws their way.

Tiny Dynamite is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 3rd February.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉