Any chance to see a play by Alan Bennett is always a shot in the arm and so the opportunity to see a double bill is doubly welcome. The determined and dedicated Teddington Theatre Club based in Hampton have put together an intriguing couple of one-act plays. A Visit from Miss Prothero and An Englishman Abroad. The latter is usually paired with A Question of Attribution in a double bill Single Spies. Director Jenny Hobson has noticed that both Miss Prothero and An Englishman Abroad have the same setup. In both, a single man sits on his own in a room and is visited by not a gentleman caller but a lady caller as it were. The result is a fascinating juxtaposition of two seemingly different but ultimately remarkably similar case studies in loneliness, nostalgia and loss. Its vintage Bennett with all his trademark humour, gimlet-eyed observation and touching poignancy. Refreshingly it’s all done and dusted within one hour and 45 minutes. A Goldilocks night at the theatre, that is to say not too long and not too short but just so. Moreover, it’s on upstairs in the Noel Coward studio which makes for a very intimate and face to face experience. I sat in the front row where I got to see every nuance, every detail.
A Visit from Miss Prothero ( 1978) was first broadcast on the BBC. Patricia Routledge played Miss Prothero. Now that is a hard act to follow but Liz Williams is excellent. From the moment she enters the home of retired widower Arthur Dodsworth (Jeremy Gill, superb) we know she is “ a bloody difficult woman”. She puts Arthur on the back foot from the get-go and never lets him off the hook. “I rang twice”, she tells Arthur. Like a barrister or detective, she picks him up on his every word. She torments him with tales about Warburtons the company Arthur spent 30 years working for. Miss Prothero dismisses Arthurs new hobbies, pottery, cookery and music and his budgie Millie as mere escapism. She tells Arthur her news. She’s changed her extension from 216 to 314. Like the annoying woman in the Catherine Tate Show who torments her co-worker with the constant question, how old do you think? or have a guess? Miss Prothero invites Arthur to guess the age of Doreen Brunskill in Credit and Settlement. Arthur plays some music “Un Homme et Une Femme” to ease the tension but Miss Prothero cuts it short. She doesn’t read either. Romance and travel she despises as mere escapism. The mind is elsewhere she insists. For her Warburtons is everything. A single woman as her name suggests, we learn that she believes her father killed her mother. “Over forty-two years of marriage day by day inch by inch, smiling and smiling in the sight of the whole world, gently and politely with every appearance of kindness, he killed her”. Miss Prothero is a misanthropist and a bully. She gets so under Arthurs skin that by the end he is reduced to tears as he cries for his beloved Winnie. His budgie Millie in her cage is an apt image for Arthur’s sad lonely retirement. Like Millie, he is depressed indeed doubly so after a visit from Miss Prothero.
An Englishman Abroad (1988) also features a man in a room on his own visited by a woman. In this case, the man is the Guy Burgess – What is it with the name Guy and traitors? Guy Fawkes, Guy Burgess – the famous Cambridge spy living in exile in Moscow and his visitor Coral Brown the actress in Moscow to perform Hamlet. Unlike Miss Prothero, Coral is kind and sympathetic. Like Arthur, Guy offers to play some music to pass the time. He plays Jack Buchanan’s ‘Who Stole my heart away?’ The obvious answer for Guy would be Stalin. Indeed a giant photo of the man of steel is projected onto the back of the stage. Just as Miss Prothero gossiped about Warburtons so Guy asks Coral to give him all the gossip about England. He misses the Reform Club on Pall Mall, his flat in Jermyn Street and the NHS. He wants Coral to measure him for some suits to be made by his tailor in Jermyn Street. As he says to Coral clothes have never been ‘The Comrades’ strong suit and besides, he doesn’t want to look like everyone else. This is the most delicious irony. The man who betrayed his country wants a suit from Jermyn Street. Guy misses the London of the blackout and the opportunities it provided to meet young men. He reminisces in Russian ‘Skolko zeem, skolko let‘, what does that mean asks Coral? It means the same as our ‘Ou sont les neiges d’antan? – Nostagia you see knows no frontiers’. Whereas Miss Prothero has depressed Arthur Coral’s visit has cheered Guy up. Especially as she sends him the suit from Jermyn Street. Speaking to his tailor Coral is reassured that as a long established customer Mr Burgess will be supplied with discretion. Mums the word suggests Coral.
Tailor: Oh, madam. Mum is always the word here. Moscow or Maidenhead, mum is always the word.
The play ends with Guy Burgess – old Etonian, Dartmouth Naval College, Trinity College Cambridge, BBC, The Foreign Office, The Reform Club – standing in his Moscow flat dressed in Homburg hat, pin-striped suit, shoes from Church’s and umbrella as he sings ‘For he is an Englishman’ from Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore:
For he might have been a Roosian,
A French or Turk or Proosian,
Or perhaps I-tal-ian.
For in spite all temptation
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman,
He remains an Englishman.
Review by John O’Brien
A Visit from Miss Prothero. Alone and recently retired, Arthur Dodsworth’s relatively settled life is turned upside down by a visit from his vindictive ex-secretary. Ironic wit and compassion mark this touchingly real story.
An Englishman Abroad. Moscow 1958. Exiled British spy Guy Burgess encounters actress Coral Browne on tour from the ‘old country’. Invited to lunch at Burgess’s shabby apartment, he presents her with a strange request.
A VISIT FROM MISS PROTHERO
Miss Prothero – Liz Williams
Mr Dodsworth – Jeremy Gill
AN ENGLISHMAN ABROAD
Coral Browne – Roberta Cole
Guy Burgess – Patrick Harrison
Tolya – Graham Titcombe
Tailor – Jeremy Gill
Assistant – John Wilkinson
Production Team & Crew:
Director – Jenny Hobson
Production Manager – Juliette Sexton
Stage Manager and Set Construction – Vicky Horder
Lighting Designer – Patrick Troughton
Sound Designer – Charles J Halford
Set Construction – Alan Corbett
Props and Set Construction – Mart Stonelake
Costumes – Maggie Revis
Photography – Jojo Leppink
Rehearsal Prompt – Liz Salaman
Artistic Link – Heather Mathew
BAT Link – Dave Rumens
A Visit from Miss Prothero & An Englishman Abroad
By Alan Bennett
Two ‘tales with a twist’ from a master storyteller
Sun 9 Jun 2019 to Sat 15 Jun 2019
Hampton Hill Theatre: Coward Studio