Do Not Go Gentle

Tue 9th – Sat 13th August 2011

reviews

Madeleine Stottor

at 06:55 on 12th Aug 2011

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I didn’t expect much from ‘Do Not Go Gentle’. One of the many offerings included in the American High School’s incredinbly wide-ranging Fringe programme, the flyer features a misquotation of a Dylan Thomas villanelle, and the synopsis provided describes a ‘powerful, poignant’ play teetering on the edge of lofty pretension in its discussion of ‘big’ themes like grief, death, and forgiveness. Thankfully, this production never tips over that brink into sentimentality, and is moving and surprisingly humorous.

The play deals with the aftermath of Lillian Barron’s death, as her family return to her house to divide up the pieces of time she has left behind. Her son, an Air Force man stationed in 1991 Germany, his daughter, and his cousin are joined by an estate saleswoman in a house covered top to bottom with apocalyptic, apparently mad paintings, including flowers daubed across the television screen, so one has to ‘watch the war through wildflowers’. Lillian (Sarah Priddy) remains on-stage throughout, unseen by the other cast members, but occasionally interacting with them in the play’s 'jumbled time' of memory segments, which make effective use of spotlighting and music. Explaining the paintings is central to the story, as are the mysterious cut phone-line and breaking windows, which eventually resolve themselves in the figure of ‘Nobody’, an illiterate teenager Lillian had been teaching to read.

What is most noticeable about ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ is the strength of the acting. With a script which more than occasionally (and only sometimes deliberately) drops into cliché and platitude while struggling to deal with the huge themes it sets up for itself, the play might easily have become trite and sentimental. But Sarah Priddy’s Lillian is wonderful; she is somehow convincing as the wise grandmother, despite being over sixty years younger than her in reality. Brennan Neal as Windsor is a suitably repressed Air Force officer, but really develops by the play’s close, though his portrayal of a child-Windsor falls short, too close in characterisation to his adult counterpart. Audra Edwards, as daughter Kelly, balances the anger and grief of her character well. The unwaveringly perky Mildred Flumac (Katie Dudley) injects humour, as do moments like Lillian's crystal ball readings, where her customers complete their own fortunes.

‘Do Not Go Gentle’ is hardly an action-packed play, but it is clever. No end is left untied, right down to little details like why there are Ding Dongs in the fridge, and suspense is just about maintained as one wonders who else is in the house, and what Kelly’s final letter to her grandmother really said (though this is fairly obvious from the very first truncated references to it). The lighting, by Raquel Borup, effectively highlights different perspectives and time periods, and director Tracy Harrison deserves credit for the professionalism of both her cast and staging.

For some, ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ might feel like it is trying too hard to be moving and contemporary, and perhaps too ‘American’. An officer about to be sent to Iraq, modern concerns with isolation, and social anxieties about the elderly all find their place here. But the performances are, like Windsor, ‘compulsively competent’, and the audience seemed to agree – more than a few left in tears. Considering that this is a high school production, it is all the more impressive, and a thought-provoking, genuine performance.

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