Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 13th May, 2018
Tom Stoppard’s translation of Gerald Sibleyras’s Le Vent des Peupliers fits into a niche of comedy we’re familiar with in the UK. I think of Foggy, Compo and Clegg cooking up their latest madcap scheme, of Waiting for God, which concerned the inmates of a retirement home, and also I think of Quartet, the play about retired opera singers. In that play, they’re working toward a final concert; in this play, the characters’ objective is escape! They want to climb a hill, rather than just being over it!
Claire Armstrong Mills directs this gentle comedy, with its barbed remarks and the occasional raucous moment. There is some nicely handled physical business with a garden hose, and we enjoy spending time with this trio of old soldiers in their retirement home. John Whittell’s Henri displays a nice line in comic timing. He’s a sort of lanky Alan Bennett figure who delivers some killer one-liners with the precision of a sniper. Brian Wilson is the ailing Phillippe, brimming with conspiracy theories and prone to blackouts due to the shrapnel in his noggin. Wilson’s Phillippe is affable but fragile, and we find we care about him. Dave Hill’s curmudgeonly, cynical Gustave has a vulnerable side – we see how the Great War has affected these men: Henri’s leg, Phillipe’s blackouts, Gustave’s nerves – and now they have the infirmities of old age to contend with on top of it all.
They’re a likeable if sexist threesome and there’s something almost absurdist about the script. A nun (Alice Abrahall) stalks silently across the stage from time to time like the Woman in Black or the Angel of Death. And completing the cast is the stone figure of a dog, who gets to upstage the lot of them at the end.
It’s an amusing couple of hours, finely presented. Keith Harris’s set evokes France, nuns, old age and death in one economic design. That the home is adjacent to a cemetery puts a certain perspective on the residents’ point of view.
There are a few instances when the lines aren’t quite ready to come out in the right order, but I’m sure this will sharpen up as the run continues. The show gives us plenty to laugh at and about, while gently prodding us to ponder what keeps us going, what makes us get out of bed in the morning, and what are we going to do while we’re still able to do it.