Pretty Polly is a ballad antedating the 18th century that comes in a myriad of versions but in essence tells of Polly, a young pregnant woman, lured into the forest (or onto the beach) by a woodcutter (or a ship's carpenter) who promises to marry Polly but murders her. When he goes back to the forest (or to sea), he is haunted by her ghost (or confesses to the murder or goes mad and dies or his ship fails to sail or he is horribly killed by the ghost). Lurid but enormously popular, as were other 'penny dreadful' tales like Maria Marten and the Red Barn. The ballad is referenced obliquely in Pretty Polly's Dead, an hour-long psycho-drama on at the BT Studio this week for two performances. Three local playwrights, Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Catherine Comfort and Heather Dunmore have combined unusually as a trio over a couple of years, taking on the development of one character each before melding their creation into a whole.
The themes and situation are something of a staple of family psycho-drama, with gone-away siblings descending upon a stay-at-home (let's say a variant of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse), whereupon changes in attitude and material well-being are outlined, old resentments, guilt and possible desire for reparation are touched upon, and a cupboard stuffed with a rattling skeleton or two is opened (literally so here), with the contents either raked over or hastily crammed in again and the door shut. Homer's Odyssey comes to mind, and so does the parable of The Prodigal Son, in recent theatrical times we're into Pinterland, notably The Homecoming; also in the work of Brian Friel. The use of photographs by our writers here both to illuminate the past and as tinder that soon bursts into flames put me in mind of Stephen Poliakoff, particularly in Shooting the Past and Perfect Strangers.
here we had country mouse Hermione, worn down by years of enforced caring for
her mother, unseen but dying upstairs, and scraping by financially and
emotionally. She is visited on the family farm after donkeys' years by sister
Tess, now a London doctor and to her sister a figure of success, and by sister
Betty, sporting both a Texas accent acquired from her years abroad and a
measure of brashness and can-do attitude which chime uneasily with Hermione's
domestic insularity and emotional neediness. As more or less expected, though,
Hermione's neediness turns out to be matched by that of her siblings. Betty
travels with the baggage of a failed marriage, a penchant for the bottle and four children,
while competent professional Tess turns out to have a secret of her own.
These individual issues are heaped atop the burden of ghosts from the past that weighs upon them all. The short running time more or less rules out a full delving into these themes, and what we have plays more as an outline. This a pity since I think the real pleasure to be had from a drama dealing with such material is likely to be found in the script's accumulation of detail of character and observation, and in the sharpness of the writing appreciable over a rather more extended time than was on offer here.
Oxford director Emma Webb, her elbow-room limited of course by the exiguous BT playing space, has done a workwoman-like job of signalling the periodic switches into flashback. Even if I felt the black coat costume changes for the blink-and-you-miss-it funeral had a touch of clumsiness about them and some of the liaison between the stage action and events off-stage were a little clunky, her work with the actors over what was a short rehearsal period has paid dividends. All were first-class. Nell Hook's Betty, sporting a red 'Don't Mess with Texas Women' T-shirt, tells her sisters 'I've had all the medication, all the counselling I need' and conveyed admirably more than a soupçon of wildness alongside a penchant for tidying-up. I thought as Dr. Tess, Jenny Johns made a persuasive job of demonstrating how a carapace of professional common sense can conceal internal doubt angst. Ida Berglöw Kenneway's Hermione was a plausibly fatigued and put-upon figure, but in the end buoyed by a vestige of opportunity.
Our three writers have now written a longer WW2-set play, Spitfire Sisters, whose subject matter as described to me sounds original and intriguing, and we'll await its production in Oxford with some anticipation.