The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Stage Production
Just a few months after Notes from a Small Island, it was back to one of my local theatres, The Watermill, for the stage adaptation of another book club selection, this time the Victorian true crime narrative The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize (now called the Baillie Gifford Prize) for non-fiction in 2008.
I must have read the book in 2009, the year after it first came out, and while I had the best intentions of rereading it in time for our book club meeting earlier this month, I didn’t even manage to skim it. I remembered one fact alone, the method of murder, which is not surprising as it was particularly gruesome: A young boy had his throat slit and was stuffed down the privy. But that was all that had remained with me. My husband filled me in on the basics and the discussion, held at our house, reminded me of the rest. We then made it a book club outing to the theatre.
The crime took place in late June 1860 at the Wiltshire home of the Kent family: the patriarch, a factory inspector; his four children from his first marriage; his second wife, formerly the older set’s governess; and their three young children. Jonathan “Jack” Whicher, sent by Scotland Yard to investigate, was one of London’s first modern detectives and inspired Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Constance Kent, 16, later confessed to the murder of her three-year-old half-brother, Saville, motivated by anger at her stepmother for replacing her mentally ill mother, but uncertainty remained as to whether she had acted alone.
The play was very well done, maintaining tension even though there was a decision to introduce Constance as the killer immediately: the action opens on her and Mr Whicher in her cell at Fulham Prison in the 1880s. This is an invented scene in which he has come to visit, begging her to tell him the whole truth in exchange for him writing a letter to try to secure her early release. (She appealed four times but ended up serving a full 20-year sentence.)
Cold, stark lighting and a minimal set of two benches against a backdrop of steel doors and a mullioned window evoke the prison setting, with only the subtle change to warmer lighting indicating flashbacks as Constance and Whicher remember or act out events from 20 or more years before. These two remain on stage for the entirety of the first act. Four other actors cycle in and out, playing Kent family members and various other small roles. For instance, the bearded middle-aged actor who plays Mr Kent also appears as a coroner giving a precis of Saville’s autopsy – he mentions Collins and Dickens, but the evolution of the Victorian detective is, by necessity, a much smaller element of the play than it was in the book.
It’s a tiny theatre, but projections on a screen (such as a sinuous family tree) and a balcony, used for wordless presence or loud pronouncements, made it seem bigger than it was. Saville himself is only depicted as a mute figure on that upper level, in the truly spooky scene that closes the first act. I remember when the Watermill put out a discreet call for child actors, warning parents about the sort of content to expect. Three children play the role (plus one other bit part) in rotation. Pulsing violin music enhanced the feeling of dread, and each act was no more than 45 minutes, so the atmosphere remained taut.
A missing nightdress – presumably blood-stained – as well as her own father’s hunch, were among the main evidence against Constance, so Whicher did not secure a conviction at the time and was publicly ridiculed for his failure to crack the case. That and his own loss of a child are suggested to be behind his obsession with tying up loose ends. While Constance expresses regret for her actions and calmly takes him through the accepted timeline of the murder, she refuses to give him anything extra.
The second act delves into what happened next for Constance: living among nuns in France and then in Brighton, where she decided to confess, and then relocating to Australia, where she worked in a halfway house for lepers and troubled youth, as if to make up for the harm she caused earlier in her life (and she lived to age 100!). This involved the most significant change of set and actors, with the former Mr. and Mrs. Kent now filling in as the older Constance and William, the brother closest to her in age.
The play fixates on the siblings’ relationship, returning several times to their whim to run away to Bristol and be “cabin boys” together. I wondered if there was even meant to be a sexual undercurrent to their connection. William Savill-Kent went on to be a successful marine biologist specialising in corals and Australian fisheries. One theory is that they were accomplices in the murder but Constance took the fall so that her brother could live a full life.
Intriguingly, the team behind the production decided to espouse this hypothesis explicitly. In the chilling final scene, then, a crib is wheeled out to the centre of the stage and Constance floats on in a white nightdress to lower the side closest to the audience. Just before the lights go down, William, too, appears in a white nightdress and stands over the far side of the crib.
Although I referred to the book as “compulsive” in the one mention I find of it in my computer files, from 2011, I only gave it 3 stars – my most common rating in those years, an indication that a book was alright but I moved right along to the next in the stack and it didn’t stick with me. My book club had mixed feelings, too, generally feeling that there was too much extraneous detail, which perhaps kept a narrative that could have read as fluidly as a novel from being truly gripping. The play, though, was thrilling.
Book (c. 2009):
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Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island: Reread and Stage Production
Bill Bryson, an American author of humorous travel and popular history or science books, is considered a national treasure in his adopted Great Britain. He is a particular favourite of my husband and in-laws, who got me into his work back in the early to mid-2000s. As I, too, was falling in love with the country, I found much to relate to in his travel-based memoirs of expatriate life and temporary returns to the USA. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see things clearly.
When we heard that Notes from a Small Island (1995), his account of a valedictory tour around Britain before returning to live in the States for the first time in 20 years, had been adapted into a play by Tim Whitnall and would be performed at our local theatre, the Watermill, we thought, huh, it never would have occurred to us to put this particular book on stage. Would it work? we wondered. The answer is yes and no, but it was entertaining and we were glad that we went. We presented tickets as my in-laws’ Christmas present and accompanied them to a mid-February matinee before supper at ours.
A few members of my book club decided to see the show later in the run and suggested we read – or reread, as was the case for several of us – the book in March. I started my reread before attending the play and had gotten through the first 50 pages, which is mostly about his first visit to England in 1973 (including a stay in a Dover boarding-house presided over by the infamously officious “Mrs Smegma”). This was ideal as the first bit contains the funniest stuff and, with the addition of some autobiographical material from later in the book plus his 2006 memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, made up the entirety of the first act.
Bryson traveled almost exclusively by public transport, so the set had the brick and steel walls of a generic terminal, and a bus shelter and benches were brought into service as the furnishing for most scenes. The problem with frontloading the play with hilarious scenes is that the second act, like the book itself on this reread, became rather a slog of random stops, acerbic observations, finding somewhere to stay and something to eat (often curry), and then doing it all over again.
Mark Hadfield, in the starring role, had the unenviable role of carrying the action and remembering great swathes of text lifted directly from the book. That’s all well and good as a strategy for giving a flavour of the writing style, but the language needed to be simplified; the poor man couldn’t cope and kept fluffing his lines. There were attempts to ease the burden: sections were read out by other characters in the form of announcements, letters or postcards; some reflections were played as if from Bryson’s Dictaphone. It was best, though, when there were scenes rather than monologues against a projected map, because there was an excellent ensemble cast of six who took on the various bit parts and these were often key occasions for humour: hotel-keepers, train-spotters, unintelligible accents in a Glasgow pub.
The trajectory was vaguely southeast to northwest – as far as John O’Groats, then back home to the Yorkshire Dales – but the actual route was erratic, based on whimsy as much as the availability of trains and buses. Bryson sings the praises of places like Salisbury and Durham and the pinnacles of coastal walks, and slates others, including some cities, seaside resorts and tourist traps. Places of personal significance make it onto his itinerary, such as the former mental asylum at Virginia Water, Surrey where he worked and met his wife in the 1970s. (My husband and I lived across the street from it for a year and a half.) He’s grumpy about having to pay admission fees that in today’s money sound minimal – £2.80 for Stonehenge!
The main interest for me in both book and play was the layers of recent history: the nostalgia for the old-fashioned country he discovered at a pivotal time in his own young life in the 1970s; the disappointments but still overall optimism of the 1990s; and the hindsight the reader or viewer brings to the material today. At a time when workers of every type seem to be on strike, it was poignant to read about the protests against Margaret Thatcher and the protracted printers’ strike of the 1980s.
The central message of the book, that Britain has an amazing heritage that it doesn’t adequately appreciate and is rapidly losing to homogenization, still holds. Yet I’m not sure the points about the at-heart goodness and politeness of the happy-with-their-lot British remain true. Is it just me or have general entitlement, frustration, rage and nastiness taken over? Not as notable as in the USA, but social divisions and the polarization of opinions are getting worse here, too. One can’t help but wonder what the picture would have been post-Brexit as well. Bryson wrote a sort-of sequel in 2015, The Road to Little Dribbling, in which the sarcasm and curmudgeonly persona override the warmth and affection of the earlier book.
Indeed, my book club noted that a lot of the jokes were things he couldn’t get away with saying today, and the theatre issued a content warning: “This production includes the use of very strong language, language reflective of historical attitudes around Mental Health, reference to drug use, sexual references, mention of suicide, flashing lights, pyrotechnics, loud sound effect explosions, and haze. This production is most suitable for those aged 12+.”
So, yes, an amusing journey, but a bittersweet one to revisit, and an odd choice for the stage.
A favourite line I’ll leave you with: “To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.”
Original rating (c. 2004):
My rating now:
Have you read anything by Bill Bryson? Are you a fan?
An All-Female Picture of Dorian Gray
A female Doctor Who, a proposed all-woman The Lord of the Flies – you can sense a cultural movement toward giving traditionally male roles to women. On Friday my husband and I saw an all-female production of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), at the lovely nearby Watermill Theatre. Adapted by Phoebe Eclair-Powell and directed by Owen Horsley, this is a brisk 67-minute performance by three young actresses.
With no intermission and no drastic scene changes, there was never the need for any of the players to leave the stage. Two of the actresses, Eva Feiler and Emily Stott, shared narration duties and rotated through all the supporting roles: mostly Dorian’s friends Lord Henry Wotton (Emily) and Basil Hallward (Eva), but also Sibyl Vane, the actress he falls for, her mother and brother, and so on – signifying their character changes through a simple prop like a flat cap, cane or ruffled cape. On the other hand, Emma McDonald, the Black British woman who played Dorian, had only that one part.
The costumes were all a variation on black and white, with Dorian in a form-fitting black dress with feathery epaulettes and the other two in more androgynous shirt and trouser combinations. A large white door frame was the only major item on stage: it served as the titular portrait’s frame and as the stage-within-the-stage for Sibyl’s performances, as well as the site for all comings and goings. Beyond that, the only stage furniture was a couple of chairs and a table with a wine bottle and some glasses on it.
I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray, but it’s one of those story lines you’re probably familiar with whether or not you’ve encountered the original and/or an adaptation. Dorian, led to believe that youth and beauty are the only things that matter in life, makes a devilish pact by which he transmits his soul to the portrait Basil painted of him: the painting will age and reflect the true state of Dorian’s character, while his body remains perfect. So as he goes his merry way through life, breaking the hearts of men and women alike and pursuing pleasure everywhere from London’s opium dens to China and Mexico, his face never changes.
I thought it was particularly meaningful to examine cultural ideals of age and attractiveness with female players. However, there was an odd disconnect for me here: the original names were retained, along with male pronouns throughout. Why wasn’t it “Dora Gray”, her hard-partying friend “Henrietta”, and so on? The contrast was especially striking in moments where the characters pause to refresh their lipstick.
Well, the director answered that query – or, rather, sidestepped it – during the question and answer session that followed this short production. Horsley mentioned that Eclair-Powell only wanted to work with the play if she could have an all-female cast, and that she didn’t want to try to feminize the story in any way. She just wanted to put it out there, the same way Shakespeare might have – as with his cases of men playing woman playing men – and let audiences decide what they thought.
After a week at the Watermill, the production is moving on to a several-week tour of local schools, where it will be aimed at teenage audiences. I reckon it will be more effective in that context: the themes of vanity and selfishness should ring true for young people, and they will probably appreciate the comic flashes (e.g. when the narrators joke about who’s going to play which part, with what accent) more than I did, as well as the slightly melodramatic moments when Dorian is standing in front of the painting and telling us what ‘he’ sees.
In any case, I think I’ll make Dorian Gray one of my spooky pre-Halloween reads. I’ve downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.
Do you think you would have enjoyed this production, or found it off-putting?