By John Crosby
THE DAY AFTER THE FAIR by Frank Harvey based on a story by Thomas Hardy. Presented by Frith Banbury and Jimmy Wax by arrangement with Arthur Cantor at the Lyric on 4 October, 1972. Directed by Frith Banbury, décor by Reece Pemberton, costumes by Robin Fraser Paye, lighting by Joe Davis.
Arthur Harnham, DUNCAN LAMONT; Letty, AVICE LANDON; Edith, DEBORAH KERR; Sarah, JIGGY BHORE: Anna, JULIA FOSTER; Charles Bradford, PAUL HASTINGS. Photographs by Dominic
THE CURTAIN RISES ON The Day After The Fair, a play by Frank Harvey based on a short story by Thomas Hardy, on a perfectly stunning extravaganza’ of a Victorian drawingroom-curved walnut settees, overstuffed chairs with antimacassars, a huge grandfather clock, an organ (Bless my soul), silver salvers everywhere, hunting trophies scattered about. I settled back to a good period romp. Nothing better than a Thomas Hardy revival at this moment-I loved Far From The Madding Crowd much more than most moviegoers -as an antidote to the anarchy of so much stage and cinema these days. But alas . . .
The Day After The Fair (Hardy’s title was On The Western Circuit) must be a very good short story. A childless young lady, trapped in a loveless marriage to an unfeeling West Country brewer, fills her empty life by virtually adopting a sexy illiterate farm girl who becomes her servant. The serving girl falls in love with a handsome London barrister, having a spree below stairs as it were, and she gives herself to him at the first opportunity because it would be ‘against nature’ not to.
Correspondence ensues-the man is in London, the girl in Salisbury and because the girl can’t write, the lady takes over the writing for the servant girl, substituting `Beloved’ for `My own dear love’, and other ladylike gentilities such as `I am despondent’ in place of such earthy simplicities as `I think of you all day long’; in fact, substituting herself for the servant girl, heart and soul.
Well, you can probably guess what happened after that and my complaint is that I did guess what was going to happen -and then it happened. I kept waiting for Mr Harvey to surprise me by a twist here or there of plot, or of line or of character. But, no, the play preceded with undeviating heavy-footed inevitability to its too predestined end.
Actually, the situation is one of extraordinary subtlety and complexity in the social context of its time. The barrister falls in love with the letter writer, as you know he will, but the real moral dilemma arises when the lady realises what she has done and where the thing is headed, which is a marriage even more catastrophic than her own. She has begun the letter writing reluctantly, purely to do the right thing, then has slowly succumbed to the delicious pleasure of a vicarious affair without any of the consequences. The serving girl is pregnant; the lady is having the fun without the baby.
The crunch comes when she realises all this, when she knows she can stop the action-and what’s more she should stop it-but, by now, giving up the delights of this vicarious affair is as impossible for her as stopping the young man short of laying her was for the servant girl. A delicious situation for a short story. Not for a play. At least not for a play by Mr Harvey who is too pedestrian a writer to keep it alight for two and a half hours. Never apologise, never explain, Evelyn Waugh used to say. Mr Harvey is forever apologising, forever explaining when a shrug, a sigh, or silence alone would have been enough. Some of the writing comes perilously close to soap opera level and the glints of social irony that surface from time to time-“I saw our MP. He says he thinks poverty is an economic necessity”-are probably the original Thomas Hardy.
Deborah Kerr plays the lady letter writer, making her first stage appearance since Tea And Sympathy far too long ago, and there is no one alive (or dead) who can play a lady with more authority or more radiance. She is absolutely perfect, starting as she does in very low keydoing the right thing because one mustand then realising with blazing precision and control that it is not at all the right thing-and left at the final curtain, bereft, shattered and alone. Julia Foster is just as perfectly cast as the serving wench.
Fresh from Lulu and Notes On A Love Affair, the all time sex symbol of the age, Miss Foster is becoming almost typecast as sex incarnate, and she is bloody good. In fact these two ladies may be able to carry this fragile vessel through the season. The entire cast, I thought splendid, though I would have liked a little less stately a pace to the direction.
The play does come to a full boil only, i think, in the final moments. Then the barrister and the lady confront each other in a scene that is beautifully under written for a change. `Chained to a peasant,’ says the young man to Miss Kerr. Some of the liberal critics, chained to their own classless prejudices, rose in fury at the very suggestion that a serving girl was not a fitting enough mate for a barrister or indeed for you or you or you; an idiotic posture. In 1900 to wake up married to a girl like Anna would have been as terrifying a lifelong prospect as a marriage today with a particularly ferocious baboon.