On Thursday, we took our seats at Tiptop’s latest production ‘Ladies in lavender to the majestic sounds of Verdi’s Four Seasons. This turned out to be fitting indeed!
The play focuses on elderly sisters, Janet (Hilary Wiseman) and Ursula (Gwen Cowan), who live seemingly contented lives in their Cornish cottage, only to have their world (and emotions) turned upside down by their friendship with Andrea, a handsome young Pole (Axel James), found injured on the beach by their cottage. And so, it seems, winter becomes enamoured by the arrival of spring!
Wiseman, as bossy, abrupt Janet, and Cowan as fragile Ursula, who still longs for romance, was a strong pairing. Having myself had aunts growing ever older together, I found these characters spot on. Their conversations were both poignant and comic. Ursula’s quiet “We get on with things” rang true, also comments such as Janet’s swift rebuke that biscuits should never be eaten on weekdays. This script was consistently tender, also heartbreakingly accurate.
The ladies lived in a world of routine: Janet knitting, Ursula reading, visits from widower Dr Mead, who missed his wife “only now and then” (ably played by John Lindop). And there were plenty of chats and spats with housekeeper Dorcas (great one-liners from Mandy Taylor). The ladies lived in a world of eiderdowns, counterpanes, Arthur Askey, Star Gazey Pie** and cocoa at bedtime. And Ursula suggesting cocoa could be sipped in bedrooms rather than sipped downstairs was seen as an extraordinary treat.
And so having nursed Andrea back to health, the sisters discover he’s a talented violinist. By then Ursula has fallen for him (read him Fairy Stories, knitted socks, stroked his head) and Janet accepted him completely. They wanted him with them always. But lovely young Russian, Olga (beautifully played by Katie Deyes) appears. Her brother, Boris, was a world-famous violinist and on hearing Andrea play, Olga determined Andrea met Boris.
And that was that. Olga and Andrea leave Cornwall, leaving the sisters devastated. Both, but particularly Ursula, had been on a highly emotional journey and the play’s final scene is suitably poignant, leaving us in thoughtful silence to enjoy the loveliest of music. A wonderful ending to a moving play, brilliantly directed by Phil Edwards and supported by his expert team, including Rob Lyons and Phil Cross who devised a most ingenious set.
Ladies in lavender has its own intriguing history. Originally a story by William J. Locke, written in WW1, it was made into a screenplay by Charles Dance (2003) starring Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It finally hit the stage as a play by Shaun McKenns in 2012, with Hayley Mills as Ursula.
**Cornish Star Gazey Pie consists of pilchards (poking out through pastry!) plus eggs, potatoes.
Image courtesy of Mark Carline