Black Chiffon at Park Theatre
Though rarely revived (the show’s last outing was at the White Bear Pub theatre in Kennington), Black Chiffon was a post-WWII classic, running for 409 performances in 1949 before transferring to Broadway. The production does not always capture the fervent emotions so poignantly displayed in Lesley Storm’s writing, but Abigail Cruttenden’s lead performance as heroine Alicia Christie is captivatingly and beautifully portrayed.
Set in the drawing-room of the Christies’ house on Chelsea Embankment (valiantly, though plainly portrayed by set designer Beth Colley), young Roy Christie’s (Jack Staddon) marriage to sweetheart Louise (Jemima Watling) is threatened to become an ignominious affair when loving mother Alison (Abigail Cruttenden) commits and is tried for stealing a black chiffon dress.
From there, an initially gentle drawing-room play transforms into an intense Freudian drama with shades of Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy as Dr Hawkins (Nicholas Murchie) interrogates Alicia and comes to the shocking conclusion that an “abnormal” love for her son has motivated her crime, which he claims he will use as a suitable defence in court.
Of all performers, it is Cruttenden who rises to the challenge of the demanding emotions at the core of this play. Even during the first act, pre-theft, the actress offers such a deft and psychologically astute portrayal of Alicia that we feel utmost sympathy for the character from start to finish. All moments of complete engagement can be linked directly to her performance.
What an audience is left wanting, however, is that same emotional and convincing depth from the rest of the production. It feels that some profoundly emotional moments are directed with an unnecessary light-hearted whim that belies the acute emotional engagement Storm demands of the audience. Moreover, the unimaginative lighting design from Pip Thurlow fails to capture the autumnal setting, let alone the brooding, bristling atmosphere when Dr Hawkins interrogates Alicia or the intense bitterness between father Robert (Ian Kelly) and son Roy (which is evident but never convincingly portrayed by the two male actors).
Despite that, however, the nature of Storm’s script, in presenting a heroine as fascinating as Rattigan’s Hester Collyer (The Deep Blue Sea) and an outstanding performance by Cruttenden ensure this play’s power continues to resonate 70 years after its thrilling debut.
Photo: Mark Douet
Black Chiffon is at Park Theatre from 18th September until 12th October 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.