Tom& Viv (24-28 March 2015)

Tom & Viv is a dark yet startlingly funny play about T.S. Eliot’s’ marriage to his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood.  Vivienne suffered a hormonal imbalance which today would almost certainly be treatable to the extent that she would be able to live a “normal” life.  However, at the time the medications she was prescribed had a devastating effect on her mental and physical health and impacted on the lives of those around her.  There is little room for doubt in the play that Viv was a great influence on Eliot’s work.

Tom & Viv:  Review by Sara Hammerton

Michael Hastings rich, multi-layered script tells the story of a marriage that was doomed to failure and the tragic effect of mental illness in an age when it was still poorly understood and poorly treated.  It spans many years, with seemingly countless scene changes.  It could easily have become disjointed, but this was a very slick, smooth production.

Swift scene changes were made possible thanks to a plain black set that was kept deceptively simple, swapping the cushions and throws on the sofa – when it wasn’t moved out of the way altogether -and changing the vases and flowers on the sideboard that doubled up as a shop and bank counter. Clever use of lighting also helped, especially the giant cross projected onto the floor to denote the church, and the scales of justice that lit up the wall for the courtroom scene.

T.S. Eliot, excellently played by Gareth Lewis as the socially awkward young American (well done on the accent Gareth) rather baffled by English customs, is immediately drawn to the distinctly well-bred Vivienne Haigh-Wood.    The attraction seems mutual and passionate, and they marry in haste. Part of her charm is that Vivienne is not quite like other people, but Tom soon finds out just how unusual she is, and how difficult to deal with.

Sophie Thompson has already proved her skill in portraying neurotic young women, as Strindberg’s Miss Julie.  As Vivie she powerfully conveyed the nervous energy, impatience, haughtiness and sometimes desperation emanating from the ever-more misunderstood heroine. Her “madness” soon becomes apparent as she burns the curtains on honeymoon, locks the hotel staff out of their room, and purloins the sheets.

Some of her back story is told to us by her mother, Rose Haigh-Wood, who spends all her time trying to keep everything smooth and calm and terribly proper.  Sandra Lizioli got the role of posh matriarch just right, and got to wear some brilliant period costumes, notably her Edwardian mutton-sleeved suit, and even a Marie-Antoinette outfit.

Despite the depressing story line, there were plenty of moments of humour, including Rose’s beautifully-timed putdowns and Tom’s dry humour.  The clown of the piece however was Maurice, Vivie’s brother, played by Craig Simpson who gave a brilliantly entertaining performance.  (Craig you really are a very convincing idiot). Maurice however is also the most self-aware character, deeply conscious of his breeding as well as his of lack brains.  You can understand why the more complex and less likeable Tom admits he had come to admire him.

There is also dry humour from Vivie’s father, Charles Haigh-Wood, played by Martin Webber, who has the confidence of his social standing but in old age becomes rather baffled and increasingly resigned.

Orla Colcough gave an assured performance as the nurse, Louise Purdon, who becomes Vivie’s confidante and possibly only friend.  She is the one who early on expressed concern about the high alcohol content of Vivie’s “medicine” and how it might affect her. Like Rose she gets to wear a lovely period Edwardian Costume.

Strong performances were also delivered by the actors in the “smaller” roles, namely Chris Wehbe as William L. Janes,  Katherine Cox as the bank clerk and Jeremy Zeegers who showed his versatility as a photographer, a very English barrister and, memorably, as the doctor who delivers the news that Vivie’s condition was actually a hormonal disorder that could easily have been treated. Although personally what will stick on my mind is his cameo as Bertie Russell at the fancy dress party given by the Bloomsbury set. Jeremy just rocks that whole black leotard/lemonade tutu look. (Another piece of irony here – Tom seems to be a bit of a social climber trying to fit in with the English establishment, yet is drawn to the anti-establishment Bloomsbury set).  Both Jeremy and Katherine also put in sterling service as efficient scene shifters, dressed as butler and maid and staying firmly in character the whole time.

The very warm applause at the end – directed I believe at both cast AND crew – was richly deserved. As Rose Haigh-Wood would say, I was riveted.

Congratulations Janet Middleton, be very proud.