Hands Across the Sea and Fumed Oak (from Tonight at 8:30)

Mon 13th – Sat 18th August 2012


Laura Peatman

at 01:53 on 16th Aug 2012



Noël Coward’s cycle of ten plays ‘Tonight at 8.30’ is given a snapshot appearance at this year’s festival courtesy of Trinity Fringe Productions, with their performance of two short works: ‘Hands Across the Sea’ and ‘Fumed Oak’. The company do a sound job of capturing the essence of Coward’s works with their portrayal of both frivolous and uncomfortable humour in this contrasting pair of works.

‘Hands Across the Sea’ offers just what I was expecting from this Oxford-based troupe’s interpretation of Coward: traditional, funny and accomplished. Lucinda Smart gives a strong comic performance as the plummy-voiced Piggie, while Clare (Lucy Raids) maintains the perfect balance between being warm and likeable and infuriatingly blasé. They are ably supported by the rest of the cast: although Priya Mainwaring (Mrs Wadhurst) occasionally tripped over some lines. In general there is no real weak link here. Particularly enjoyable is Andy Butler’s ability to generate humour simply through monosyllabic replies or silent bafflement. Indeed, stereotypical English awkwardness is managed to great comic effect by all. Piggie and Peter’s realisation of their mistake and their subsequent bewildered conversation via song is a real laugh-out-loud moment, negotiated expertly by Smart and Coase to avoid the cringe-factor – or at least, no more cringing than Coward intends.

This play is a busy one: with a large cast in a small space, a case of mistaken identity, repeated phone calls overlapping separate conversations and characters squeezing past and climbing over each other, there is plenty of potential for chaos – indeed, at one point Piggie exclaims that “this is a madhouse”. Yet the ensemble achieves organised madness through skilled direction, and the vocal and physical complexities never seem out of control.

A similarly good use of space is evident in the second work, ‘Fumed Oak’. With a strikingly different atmosphere to ‘Hands Across the Sea’, this play’s exploration of Henry Gow’s (Howard Coase) shift from apparently downtrodden existence to a bitter and violent abandonment of his family is powerful, hilarious and uncomfortable in turn – and often simultaneously. Nearly silent in the opening scene, Coase’s transformation is impressive as he dominates the stage and utilises every corner of the space provided. Elsewhere Lucinda Smart demonstrates her breadth of acting as she transforms from hostess to schoolgirl, as the unfortunate Elsie. Credit must also be given (in both plays) for some wonderfully detailed costumes and props which enhanced the solid acting.

‘Fumed Oak’ is wonderfully biting in comparison to the silliness of ‘Hands Across the Sea’ – a stand-out insult of “mean, and cold, and…respectable!” was brilliantly delivered by Coase – yet is also darker in its themes. The cast skilfully tread the grey area between humour and discomfort without ever abandoning one for the other; the audience are led to laughter only to be left wondering whether they should be giggling or recoiling at the instances of violence and vitriolic rage which Henry increasingly displays.

These performances perhaps lack a certain spark and fizz that would make this an absolute must-see; but in truth there is little to find fault with in this creditable ensemble.


Juliet Roe

at 10:46 on 16th Aug 2012



Seeing two short plays pre-lunchtime, both set in the evening, is an experience fairly common at the Fringe but managed very well by this troupe from Trinity Fringe Productions. The length and combination of the two pieces mean that you don’t get overwhelmed or bored with the clipped vowels delivering acidic put-downs, and the quality of the acting across the board ensures this show will be entertaining.

The first play, ‘Hands Across the Sea’, is stronger than the second (‘Fumed Oak’). With Coward the script is always going to be reliably good, and the cast does it justice. Any problems that did arise were caused by the nature of the venue as audience members sitting in the side-seats have quite a limited view in some of the more crowded scenes, something which might be worth revising in the blocking of the play. Initially I was very impressed by the period costumes, however as more characters joined the social melee onstage their quality seems to decline. When eventually one of the actors appears wearing red jeans and a crumpled suit jacket the illusion of thirties upper-middle class glamour is somewhat shattered. It’s telling that these are small, quite easily remedied criticisms, as on the whole this is a very accomplished performance.

The second play suffers by a slight dip in energy after a scene-change of almost ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ proportions. Like the first, the Cowardisms were well delivered on the whole however the subject matter made the humour quite uncomfortable. ‘Fumed Oak’ essentially details a man deserting his family and features the protagonist hitting his elderly mother-in-law to the ground - twice. The piece still got plenty of laughs, but it was a much darker comedy than the first and perhaps, as a result of this and the drop in energy, the performances did not come across quite as competently. If you’re a fan of Coward, or want quite a concise introduction to him, then don’t be put off by the early time-slot as this production handles the witticisms very well and, once some of the costumes are given a quick iron, is slick enough to make it feel like the right time for whiskey-and-sodas. Chin chin.


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