Stephen Hayter reviews The Maintenance Man

The Maintenance Man
by Richard Harris
performed by Waterbeach Community Players
directed by Wendy Croft

It seems to me that any comments made (by me) about The Waterbeach Community Players 2016 production of Steel Magnolias have not caused too much offence in the Society as they asked me back to look over their 2017 offering, Richard Harris's The Maintenance Man. I was delighted to be invited again but not as delighted as I was to be confronted with a wonderful new set of soft, deep-filled cushions. The issues associated with a sitting position where your knees are up round your ears are reduced when your rear end is as comfy as is humanly possible. So here I was back at Waterbeach School which (all joking aside) is an excellent venue for any production.

Anyone even remotely involved in Am-Dram will already be aware that Richard Harris has a spectacular back catalogue. I am very familiar with Stepping Out (my 3rd favourite play) and Outside Edge... which I am less fond of, but still respect greatly. This play was not at all known to me... I had never even heard of it! A three-hander with a dominant male, an estranged wife and new girlfriend, who manoeuvre around each other, with never more than two thirds of them in a room at once. All three are often on stage together, and all three speak directly to the audience at one time or another. And that dear readers is pretty much the whole story, but you must trust me when I say it is quite riveting in a darkly hypnotic sort of way. I have no idea if Mr Harris considers it a comedy or not. There are gags, but the subject matter is so difficult to watch that the jokes, and the laughs they solicited, made me extremely uncomfortable. To be honest, the whole thing made me uncomfortable and that is a massive compliment because, comedy or not, Richard Harris and Waterbeach Director, Wendy Croft both wanted me to be uncomfortable.

The set (design by Mark Easterfield and construction by Mark Easterfield, Chris Shinn and members of the Society) was a classic box and showed us the living room in the house. It turned out to be the living room in the houses belonging to both women and was perfect as a metaphor for a dwelling. It was well constructed and nicely dressed. Costumes (Joy Sinclair) were contemporary and that may sound like a brush off, but, particularly with the character of Christine, what the players were wearing told you all the backstory you needed. Lighting (operation by Jason Docwra) was everything it needed to be and sound (operation by Mark Easterfield) was very much the same. Anyone (and everyone) who has been in the same situation as any of the three characters would have been amused/horrified/emotional at the background music playlist! We all have that playlist... but mercifully most of us don't use it anymore! Wigs and hairdressing (Sue Barnes) were a tiny triumph. Again, it was Christine's wig that impressed me most. I had just convinced myself it wasn't a wig and then Bang! Off it came and she was transformed! Outstanding! Incidental props were few but well considered and caused me no offence whatsoever.

This was truly an ensemble piece and it always seems unfair to rake over each performance in a play of four persons or less, but, I was there to review, and a review I will! In short everyone was excellent, but in probably (just) the smallest of the three parts I enjoyed Cath Langridge as the new (other) woman, Diana. Confident with her lines and solid with her moves, she played it perfectly. I had more sympathy for her than I expected considering her part in the menage a trois. My only criticism would be that I was not convinced by the intimacy between her and her live-in lover, Bob. I understand it was a complicated dynamic but, for me, to accept the cooling-off that occurred latterly, I felt I needed to buy into the fire that started the relationship. A small point, which did not detract greatly from a good performance.

Poor James Dowson as the main protagonist, Bob, simply had to come on stage and then never leave it until the final curtain! Rather him than me! Mr Dowson seems (from his CV) to be something of a Stalwart over Waterbeach way and his portrayal of cut price Lothario and connoisseur of shelving, Bob, was extremely absorbing. A complicated character and one that must have been a nightmare to understand and portray. Reluctant husband, reluctant father, reluctant step-father and very reluctant lover, this character was needy in a way you don't really associate with men in a stage play. Mr Dowson climbed the mountain of dialogue and slid effortlessly down the other side getting more empathy from me than I felt the character deserved.

I have (you will have noticed) given each character a paragraph of their own, but as is my M.O, penultimate paragraph honours go to the performer that has most impressed me in the production. There was never any doubt where they were going this night and that is in the direction of Christine Easterfield as deserted wife and mother, Christine. I last saw Mrs Easterfield in the aforementioned Steel Magnolias and thought her M'Lynn was exceptional. In this production, which was considerably less interesting as a piece of drama with a lot less going on, she was sublime! Her characterisation and ultimate transformation just demonstrated again what a fantastic actress she is. To take us along with her as she journeyed from sour-faced, downtrodden, frumpy and bitter abandonment to bright, cheerful and optimistic empowerment was a joy to watch. Like most men (I suspect) her original demeanour and aggression towards Bob made Christine a difficult character to empathise with, but by the end I almost felt like cheering as she shrugged off the yoke of victim and struck out on her own. A brilliant performance from start to finish.

My sincere congratulations to Debutante Director, Wendy Croft. Not every actor or actress can make the transition to Director and hardly any could look so assured first time out with such a difficult script. The technical direction was difficult to fault, and the well drilled cast only notched up one prompt and one stutter throughout the hour and fiftyminute production. I spoke (at length) to Ms Croft after the final curtain and compared The Maintenance Man to Ricky Gervais's The Office. If you work in an office (as I did at the time) it was incredibly difficult to watch that programme. That statement almost invariably attracts the question. "which character are you?" and I would always reply... "all of them"! And so it was with this incisive introspective from Richard Harris. I thought I was Christine, but there was way too much of Bob in me and more Diana than I wish to admit. I didn't laugh. I felt too awkward and the humour embarrassed me and, as I mentioned above, I know that this is exactly what writer and director were trying to achieve. Well done Waterbeach Players. A top-quality production that had me squirming in my deep-filled cushion, and one that I never wish to see again!

Stephen P. E. Hayter.
(District Representative - NODA Eastern Region - District 4 North)

Dee Dee Doke reviews The Maintenance Man

The Maintenance Man
by Richard Harris
performed by Waterbeach Community Players
directed by Wendy Croft

Need some shelves made for your home? Bob's your man. Are a few repairs in order? Ever helpful Bob is just the man for the job. Of course, if you're female, open-hearted and possibly a bit vulnerable, you're definitely in with a chance to secure Bob's services.

That's the surface premise for Richard Harris's dramedy, The Maintenance Man, performed in November by the Waterbeach Community Players, directed by Wendy Croft. A little exploration reveals a less wholesome set of scenarios underway: the seemingly genial Bob is revealed as not only less than an expert DIY man but worse, a nasty piece of work himself who psychologically wears down the women in his life. At the same time, Bob really needs his women - his wife Chris, his mistress Diana and her little daughter, his mother, and others who drift into his path - more than they need him. In fact, they'd be far better off without him.

The author is best known for his charming, much-loved dance class comedy Stepping Out. In that ultimate feel-good slice of life show, the audience is compelled to cheer on a variety of characters. In contrast, The Maintenance Man is more of a mystery. Are any of the three characters we see worth cheering on?

Possibly. But it takes The Maintenance Man a very long time to get the audience to that decision point. It is a talky two-act tale that is too heavy-handed to succeed as a comedy yet lacks the emotional punch to shine as a drama. As a one-act, The Maintenance Man could have wielded real power. In its two-act form, it meanders without sufficient storytelling punctuation of dramatic hills and valleys, especially in the first act.

However, that was not the fault of its actors, who clearly put their all into the material: James Dowson was likeable and petulant, charming and narcissistic, and blithely lacking self-awareness as the titular role of Bob, the maintenance man. In the role of Diana, Bob's mistress, Cath Langridge let her own innate niceness flow through in delivering a highly sympathetic portrayal.

It is up to the actress playing the role of Christine to drive home the ultimate understanding of the human damage Bob wreaks. We see her for most of the play as a truly miserable woman, then beautifully transformed when she reclaims her life from the cloying fingers of Bob, who can never really let go of her even when providing his 'services' to other women. Christine Easterfield deftly handled that responsibility, satisfying the audience's need for a character worthy of their support and good wishes, and something of a happy ending.

As usual, Waterbeach's set was realistic and well executed, thanks to technical director/ designer Mark Easterfield and his team. Kudos to Sue Barnes's wig wizardry, providing the character of Christine with beautiful, natural-looking long locks for flashback scenes.

This is a play with something to say - but it forces its actors to learn too many repetitive lines and its audience to spend too much time in the front rooms of characters in the clutch of inertia before we find out what that something is.

Dee Dee Doke

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