Make and Bake’s double bill of Southern dramas begins with a light-hearted look at dating and the modern Southern Belle in Horton Foote’s Blind Date. In the programme for the double bill, the director of both shows, Suresh Patel, laments the apparent lack of recognition of Horton Foote in the UK, despite a “glittering literary career in the US”. It may be true that of the two names on the bill Tennessee Williams is the first to grab the attention, but Horton Foote is also deeply entrenched in popular culture in perhaps a less visible way; to cite one example, Foote was the Academy Award-winning screenwriter for the seminal 1962 film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird.
Sarah Nancy (played by Francesca Fenech) is a young lady staying with her relatives who are very keen to set her up with the eligible young bachelors of the community, such as young Felix (Sebastian Knapp). The only problem is that Sarah Nancy is not so keen on the idea herself, and makes no bones about showing it, to the great frustration of aunt and year book beauty queen Dolores (Louise Templeton). Louise Templeton steals the show in this one (only upstaged once by Sebastian Knapp’s hilariously awful humming), full of bright smiles and seemingly imperturbable vivacity as she tries to coax unwilling Sarah Nancy into sharing her ideas on the proper way to entertain a man; which involves such scintillating conversation as “Which Church do you belong to?” and “What kind of insurance do you sell?”. The play is a warm and humorous insight into the shifting changes between generations in courting practices, and the experiences of those who can’t or won’t conform to what polite society expects of them, and was wonderfully acted.
If Blind Date was a warm experience that made you leave to auditorium with a smile on your face (especially when you were presented with home made brownies and pecan pie to get you into that Southern spirit – I assure you I haven’t let this influence my opinion of the plays!), then 27 Wagons Full of Cotton turned all that warmth into tension and a stifling atmosphere of dread. The play opens with a similar set to that of Blind Date, a doorway and window leading to the back, but in place of a chintzy, homely three piece suite and fresh flowers we have an outdoor swing, a raked stretch of sand and some haphazardly placed stools and buckets. Flora (Francesca Fenech, transformed from her nervous, sarcastic and twitchy incarnation as Sarah Nancy into a flighty, sensual creature) is the focus of the play as we see her struggle to keep her head when the situation around her gets out of control through the misadventures of her husband, the brutal and abusive Jake (Ross Ericson, transformed from the long-suffering Texan gentleman he played in Blind Date). When Jake starts acting suspiciously after a major fire at a nearby cotton gin and is delighted to take on the business of the affected Silva Vicarro, he leaves Flora in charge of entertaining the afflicted businessmen while he merrily goes off to work. Unfortunately for Flora her desire to be listened to is too much for her and before she knows it she’s trapped herself by finding someone who’s all too keen to pay her attention. What follows is a sickening increase in tension as the atmosphere builds to a cat and mouse game as Vicarro decides on a way he can also “do his neighbourly duty” and make things even. Sebastian Knapp is compelling and terrifying as he increasingly imposes himself on Flora, who becomes more and more flustered as she begins to recognise the tone of his advances.
An excellent juxtaposition of plays in this double bill that explores upholding society’s codes in neighbourliness, courtship and romance, and examines how easily they are misconstrued or abused. The acting was superb in both plays, showing off the actors’ range and sensitivity, and the choice of casting Francesca Fenech and Sebastian Knapp opposite one another in both plays showed off their skill, with Knapp’s well-meaning goofiness as Felix heightening the disturbing elements in his portrayal of the character of Silva Vicarro. Likewise Fenech’s transformation from cynical social misfit Sarah Nancy to the sensual, vulnerable Flora was compelling viewing.
Blind Date and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton are playing at the Riverside Studios until 13November. For further information and tickets, see the Riverside Studios website.