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Review: Black Chiffon, Park Theatre - emotional disturbances and a family dilemma

Lesley Storm's 1949 play is part family drama, part exploration of mental health but to a contemporary audience, the notion of what was then labelled an 'emotional disturbance' is no doubt quite different.

Black Chiffon at the Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet 650A2426
Abigail Cruttenden in Black Chiffon,  Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet

It makes me wonder how audiences then and now perceive central character Alicia Christie (Abigail Cruttenden).

She is the height of middle-class respectability and an attentive mother and wife. Her two children are grown up but still hold a lot of affection for their 'darling' mother.

Daughter Thea (Eva Feiler) is heavily pregnant with her first child and her son Roy (Jack Studden) is excited about his imminent marriage to Louise, (Jemima Watling) something even his tense relationship with his father Robert (Ian Kelly) isn't going to mar.

But this happy picnic is about to be unsettled by a wasp.

Black Chiffon at the Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet 650A1730
Jemima Watling and Jack Staddon in Black Chiffon, Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet

Alicia pops to the shops to pick up some bits for that evening's dinner with Louise's parents but is three hours late returning. Call it an emotional disturbance, a moment of madness or something else but she gets caught stealing a black chiffon nightdress.

Her 'treatment' comes in the form of a doctor gathering evidence for her defence in court.

This being the 1940s there is a good chance she could end up in jail for this one minor offence but it is the potential for scandal, if it gets out, that has Robert - and Alicia - rattled.

Black Chiffon at the Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet 650A2818
Ian Kelly and Abigail Cruttenden in Black Chiffon, Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet

Storm's play hints at 'Freudian' motives by revealing that Alicia has seen Louise wearing a black chiffon nightdress but it is obviously more complex than that. 

It would be easy to hint as to something slightly calculated in Alicia's behaviour but rather Cruttenden's performance is one of subtle conflict.

A mother who has had to over compensate for a lack of father's love, who both embraces the freedom and fears the lack of purpose of the looming empty nest.

She is a woman who for the most part is emotionally and mentally stable, keeping things together but something raw, deep within momentarily erupts. Freud would have loved the hints of subconscious motivation and I enjoyed it too.

Black Chiffon at the Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet 650A3097
Abigail Cruttenden and Eva Feiler in Black Chiffon, Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet

Perhaps where the play is less successful is in building the tension of her moral dilemma - defend herself or her family. 

Alicia says little that indicates that she is scared about the possibility of going to prison instead, she adopts the stiff upper lip aloofness of her class and the period.

Set entirely in the Christie's drawing-room, director Clive Brill does a pretty good job of keeping the cast moving in what could be static play but in the Park Theatre's studio space the sightlines aren't great from certain seats, particularly as the rake is quite shallow.

I suggest taking seats near the front and face on to the stage rather than at the side.

Black Chiffon is an interesting play, slowly building enough psychological intrigue and drama to keep you hooked.  I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.

See Black Chiffon at the Park Theatre until 12 October and is two hours and 20 minutes including an interval.

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