ON GOLDEN POND
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 31st January, 2012
Best known in its Oscar-winning film incarnation, this is a play about an elderly couple spending the summer months in their holiday cabin. The “Golden Pond” refers to the lake on which they fish and in which they skinnydip, and not to the incontinence that can come with age.
Norman (Richard Johnson) is a curmudgeon but a likeable one. He and his wife exchange gentle barbs and digs, cajoling and teasing each other and it becomes clear that for all his bluster, it is Norman who needs the most care. He is plagued by worrying lapses in memory and heart palpitations. There is always the chance he will forget to take his medication and keel over at any second.
As wife Ethel, Stefanie Powers looks good for her age – or rather, looks good for Ethel’s age. The age-defying Hollywood star potters around in bodywarmer, dressing gown and slacks, but we get the impression she is only playing someone old. Stefanie Powers is beyond the ravages of time. The performance is as casual as her costume. She is so accustomed to her husband’s scurrilous manner, his barbs glance off her. What gets her goat is the incursion of flying insects into the house. She fights a never-ending battle to get them out. It is as though Ethel is warring with the encroachments of Nature, trying in vain to take control of what is ultimately uncontrollable.
There is the more obvious symbolism of Ethel’s affection for a pair of loons out on the lake. She romanticises the birds as an old married couple, together forever, never bickering, drawn to their stability. There is also some business with a broken screen door (to keep the mosquitoes at bay) and Norman always promising to get around to fixing it. The door eventually gets fixed, as does his relationship with estranged daughter Chelsea (Elizabeth Carling).
Over the summer, Norman forms a bond with Chelsea’s stepson, Billy (Graeme Dalling) – the grandson they never had. They have fun tearing around like Tom and Huck, while Ethel provides packed lunches and towels. This is the appealing part of second childhood, I suppose.
When Norman does collapse, he recovers. The attack is a gentle reminder that Death may not be at the door but he’s starting his car and planning his route. Ethel is shocked into accepting the inevitability of mortality and the play ends with the old couple embracing each other and their fate.
There is a gentleness about the whole affair, and a sense of an undercurrent of genuine warmth among the characters. Ernest Thompson’s script sparkles as wave after wave of funny line keep coming. The water never gets too choppy, and although we spend most of our time in the shallows, we become aware of the depths even if we never fully immerse ourselves. I could have done without the sentimental incidental music between scenes. That was a bit wet. Songs from the era or that meant something to the couple would have been preferable
This kind of thing is never going to set the world of avant garde theatre on fire, but it is done really well and conventional though it is, provides an accessible, entertaining and touching couple of hours in the theatre. The cast is very strong. Richard Johnson and Graeme Dalling form a likeable partnership, and Stefanie Powers keeps them and the action bustling along in an understated but convincing performance.