BLACK CHIFFON Park90, Finsbury Park, London
Abigail Cruttenden as Alicia Christie  photographer Mark Douet

Having run for over 400 performances during the 1940/50s in London's West End, Lesley Storm's psychological drama Black Chiffon is now at London's Park90 Theatre, having transferred recently from Frinton Summer Theatre. The revival of this critically acclaimed piece is true to its original. Respectable mother and housewife Alicia Christie, by all intent a middle class matriarch in control of her life, behaves in an entirely erratic way. On the eve of her son's wedding, she has been 'nicked' for nicking a black chiffon nighgown from a local department store. This is entirely out of character and is attributed to an Oedipus complex premise, which drives the plot forward. Without spoiling the play completely, let me just say that Alicia will self sacrifice rather than expose the privacy of her family before a public audience, preferring to maintain the veneer that she has worked so hard to create and uphold throughout her years of marriage.

What we must remember is that the period in which this is set was an age where women were expected to succumb to male ego and dominance, to sacrifice their own ambition and beliefs to the principles of society mores. One did not air one's dirty linen in public. Rather more one maintained a stiff upper lip. Life was not easy in post WWII Britain. Despite outward appearances of wealth and comfort, fresh food was hard to come by and tinned fruit was a luxury. A balanced diet could only be dreamed of and so it was with the Christies.

In this family, reputation was essential. Therefore the prospect of a defence based on the Freudian psychological theory of an Oedipus filial devotion was abhorrent to Alicia. This would expose her son and suggest an abnormal relationship. No, at all costs their reputation and well being was paramount and Alicia would not/could not accept this public exposition.

Suggesting that their close bond was forged as a consequence of the neglect by husband and father, Robert, was equally unacceptable. Like her, we must not judge too harshly. As was the supposed position of his time, Robert was provider for his family and could not display emotion as this would be a sign of masculine weakness. In this role Ian Kelly was able to alienate the audience but allowed his cold veneer to drop, thereby welcoming us to a show of empathy.

Alicia, played magnificently by Abigail Cruttenden, was the anchor of her family, a lioness who protected her cubs fiercely and at cost to herself. The impending marriage of her son Roy would sever the closeness that existed between them and this would cause great anxiety to her. She had forged her life around them and the loss appears traumatic. And so, in a moment of sheer recklessness and madness, she had laughingly taken a chiffon nightgown from the shelf and stuffed it in her bag without paying for it. In that moment she had felt a sense of release. How I enjoyed her confession to psychiatrist Dr Hawkins. There was no excuse, no emotion just pure fact whilst Hawkins, similar to Priestley's inspector, probed and paced as he sought to rationalise her behaviour. Cuttenden was entirely credible. Rather like bored suburban housewife Laura in Coward's/Lean's 'Brief Encounter', her diction was crisp and pronounced and showed no hint of irrationality. She had simply enjoyed a moment of opportunism outside of her regularity.

Directed by Clive Brill and with a set mirroring a typical drawing room of a comfortably established family of the day (Beth Colley) we observe the Christie family in their daily life. All seems fine and fun but in actuality this is a family struggling to give an air of normality and domestic bliss.Whilst seemingly a static design, I found it quite delicious. There were no revolving platforms, no hi-tech or gimmicky effects. No, this is a play based solely on performance and the staging was entirely appropriate. Nostalgically I was reminded of the plays of Rattigan and Priestley, dramas that focused on portrayal, on acting and are pure theatre. Delightful!

Black Chiffon is of course dated but the truthfulness of its interpretation was charming. Will it please younger audiences? Perhaps not as it did bear a semblance to those texts studied in school but for those who want to watch authentic performance, I would urge you to see it. Too often we prioritise technical wizardry of theatre but on this occasion the spotlight is on Abigail Cruttenden, Eva Feiler (Thea), Jack Studden (Roy), Nicholas Murchie (Dr Hawkins), Yvonne Newman (Nannie), Jemma Watling (Louise, the role her own grandmother played in the 1950s) and Ian Kelly for their credible and exciting character portrayals.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes in three Acts, with one interval.

Listings

Venue: Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP
Telephone:  020 7870 6876 - 10% charge
Website: https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/black-chiffon
Dates: 18 September-12 October 2019
Performances: Mon-Sat evenings 19.45, Thurs and Sat matinees 15.15
Ticket prices: Standard £18, Concessions £16.50, under 16s £13 (subject to availability).