Review: The Clothes They Stood Up In. Nottingham Playhouse

Book by Alan Bennett

Adapted by Adrian Scarborough

Directed by Adam Penford

‘The Clothes They Stood Up In’ is a clever adaptation by Adrian Scarborough of Alan Bennett’s short story of the same name. Bristling with the trademark dry wit and observational humour of Bennett, this is a very ‘visual’ story which translates well to the stage, with the confidence of Adam Penford’s direction.

Adrian Scarborough and Sophie Thompson play the Ransomes, an absolutely average, rather predictable, middle-class couple whose lives are jolted out of their comfortable routine by a breath-taking burglary.  The plotline is slightly surreal but the real interest lies in the change in dynamics which this event causes in their relationship.

For Rosemary Ransome (Sophie Thompson), it acts as a catalyst for self-discovery. From a hunched, nervous and acquiescent wife, she discovers her own voice and opinions. Thompson’s comic timing is perfection and with the slightest flick of the eyes or curve of the lips, she conveys a thousand emotions. Bennett’s comedy comes through the quirky, but recognisable characters he writes, and Rosemary’s delight in the casual comfort of a bean-bag is a revelation.

Maurice Ransome (Adrian Scarborough) is a solicitor, as he tells us several times, and it is clearly short-hand for ‘boring and sensible’ as it receives no further explanation. The plot reveals Maurice is perhaps not quite so straight-laced as he might appear, but his character’s desperate attempts to maintain his dignity and control in the face of a challenging situation allow Scarborough to flex his comedic talents. The language is deliciously fast-paced and witty and warmly received by the audience.

Expectations of these stalwart actors is inevitably high, but quite unexpected is the talent of the supporting cast, a trio of actors who play 12 characters between them. A recent graduate, Ned Costello is superb as an academic policeman, a smooth insurance salesman, likeable warehouse manager and athletic neighbour.  Changing accent, physicality and personality, with just a little support from props and costume, he is chameleon-like and gives the impression he could play any character; one to watch.

Natasha Magigi likewise plays 5 different characters, and it’s difficult to believe they are the same actor, such contrast between them is there. From the over-sharing Dusty to bored receptionist Christine, over-sexed Cleo and finally caring nurse, she too changes character and accent in the blink of an eye, and brings great energy to the stage.

Charlie de Melo as Mr Anwar is key to Rosemary Ransome’s changing viewpoint, opening her eyes to kindness in her local community. There is a real warmth to the character and de Melo feels very natural in this, as much as a Police Sergeant and Ward Manager. Confidence is key when changing character like this and de Melo strikes just the right note.

The set, by Robert Jones, combines a few large-set pieces with some simpler scene-settings and the changes help to maintain a sense of anticipation throughout. Composer and Sound Designer Jon Nicholls enjoys indulging in some light opera to set the scene for the Ransomes middle-class lives, and with lighting by Aideen Malone covering the domestic to the industrial, a real sense of place is established.

This play is beautifully observed, Penford’s direction pulling out both large-scale physicality and small-scale responses to heighten the comedy – and pathos – throughout. It is a classic Bennett study of middle-class manners, the mundanity of everyday life revealed through a thousand small witticisms, with a darker sub-plot keeping it rooted in reality. It’s quirky, bang-up-to-date, delivered with panache and with due reverence to the brilliance of Bennett.

Running at Nottingham Playhouse until 1st October 2022

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