Chichester's revival of Plenty fails to convince

Rupert Young and Rachael Stirling in PLENTY. Photo - The Other Richard
Rupert Young and Rachael Stirling in PLENTY. Photo - The Other Richard

Plenty, Chichester Festival Theatre, until June 29

There are fine moments in Kate Hewitt’s revival, and she’s assembled a fine cast; but it’s difficult to believe that this is David Hare at his best or even a David Hare particularly worth revisiting.

Rather like the glass-floored stage on which it unfolds, you’ll find yourself wondering why it’s there in front of us. The film all those years ago was surprisingly dull; the original stage play is clearly superior but even so, it remains strangely static given the intense action in which the plot has its roots.

Susan Traherne is a former secret agent, so the programme tells us: her heroic work with the Special Operations Executive in Nazi-occupied France brought her extremes of danger, as well as adventures and romance. But we see almost none of this despite a chronology which jumps around. There’s just one wartime scene in which she barely seems to cope at all.

Consequently, one of the faults in the play is that we don’t truly get a sense of the qualities which made Susan apparently so fine an operative, nor we do really get a sense of the perils she faced as a courier. Instead, the play focuses almost exclusively on her intense post-war disillusionment, her anger and the extent to which it all topples over into mental illness.

Rachael Stirling (see interview) gives Susan a staginess in the first half which is perhaps intended to suggest her dislocation from the world around her. In reality, it seems simply staginess – though Stirling’s performance lifts considerably in the second half as the true extent of her damaged soul is bared.

Impressive alongside her is Rory Keenan as her sorely-tried husband Raymond, a man she whom she treats brutally. Keenan is brilliant when he gives her a Raymond who finally snaps. Indeed, the second half generally redeems many of the longueurs of the first.

But perhaps the real obstacles to the production are the increasingly intrusive and increasingly jarring vocal snatches during the scene changes, coupled with the over-enthusiastic, often strange and occasionally rather silly video projections. It would be interesting to see the play without the music, without the projections; so much of it would surely work so much better. Video so very rarely enhances a straight play. As it is, the music and the video serve to alienate a play which was already seeming mostly too remote. It’s not a tale which grips – for all it hints at a fascinating period of post-war change. In that respect, Nick Sampson in a beautiful cameo as Sir Andrew is perhaps the night’s highlight.

Otherwise there’s little sense of quite why the play caused quite such a furore on its premiere. Just as Susan now finds herself living out of the tune with the time she’s in, maybe Plenty too has had enough.

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