Elgar And Alice
by Peter Sutton
Sir Edward Elgar - Chris Millington
Lady Alice Elgar - Elaine Elliott
Sarah Allen - Rose Floyd
Lady Alice Suart of Wortley (Windflower) - Alison Roberts
Produced and Directed by Michael Philips
Sound and Lights - David Mason
Set constructed by David Mason and Bob Pamplin
Costumes - Christine Fryers
Additional research and programme notes - Chris Millington
Publicity - Terry Perkins
Hair - Phyl Baker
Thanks to: Elgar Society, David Worsfold, County Arms (public house, Highams Park London E4)
Peter Sutton's play, Elgar and Alice, is set in 1920 at the Elgars' home in Hampstead, and explores the extraordinary marriage that resulted in great English music ranging from Land of Hope and Glory to oratorios, symphonies and popular songs.
'A marriage of minds, not hearts,' is how Lady Alice Elgar describes her relationship with her husband, Edward Elgar - arguably the country's greatest composer - in the closing scenes of Peter Sutton's compelling play, Elgar and Alice. Her heartfelt summation is the climax of a script that brilliantly analyses - dissects even - the melancholia that haunted Alice throughout her marriage to the genius behind such works as The Dream of Gerontius and the Enigma Variations, as well as her reluctant acceptance of her husband's many infidelities.
At the start of their marriage, Elgar had enthusiastically interpreted his wife's competent poetry into memorable music, but Sutton's play eavesdrops on a much later period when Alice's ill-health is dominating both their lives, or at least that's how Alice sees it. Elgar, however, seems almost removed from the heartache. His actions and his responses verge on the eccentric, yet his love of his music; his desire to compose and his inspiration are undaunted.
In Act One, he casually discusses with one of his female admirers, Lady Alice Stuart-Wortley, the importance of the surrounding countryside - the Malvern Hills, the trees, the fields and the country folk who have influenced his music. Wortley is essential to the plot. One of his 'muses' - perhaps the most important of all - she is someone to whom he dedicates a life beyond that which he shares with Alice. Wortley's relationship with the composer is close and personal, and his nickname for her, 'Windflower', appears as a theme in a number of his works.
As the play clearly shows, there is an icy atmosphere between both wife and muse. A situation that's exacerbated by Elgar playful spirit, and a frankness that sometimes borders on cruel. At least Alice finds some comfort in the closeness of her maid Sarah Allen, a devoted servant and confidant throughout. Only in the second act, when we see the heartfelt relationship that did exist once between husband and wife, do we fully understand how difficult and testing their marriage was. Being familiar with Elgar's lush and at times meaningful music, from the rousing strains of Pomp and Circumstance to the heartrending beauty of Nimrod (from the Enigma Variations), it's astonishing to see the 'other face' of a composer whose reputation was so highly regarded in Edwardian society.
A four-hander, the play's strength lies in its intimacy and skillful dialogue. There is humour and much subtlety, but there is also plenty of irony and sadness in the text, which underlines the complexities of these troubled souls. Chris Millington plays Elgar with an impressive stage presence. He fusses and strides about the stage, illuminating his performance with flashes of passion and thoughtlessness. Millington's performance captures the enigmatic Elgar with the assurance of a highly accomplished actor at the top of his game. He's ably supported by Elaine Elliott as Lady Alice. Her attempts to understand her husband are poignantly handled, especially during the monologues she delivers in the second act, while her transformation at the climax of the play from confident woman to pitiful wretch, riddled with illness, is both moving and distressing. Alice Stuart-Wortley is played with absolute conviction by Alison Roberts. This is a performance that demonstrates both strength and emotion in equal measure and is beautifully realised by a very gifted actress. Rose Floyd plays Lady Alice's devoted maid, Sarah Allen. Her gentle scolding of Elgar and her deeply affectionate concern for Alice, particularly at the denouement when she alerts the composer to the growing severity of his wife's condition, is nicely understated.
Director Michael Philips brings to the play an irresistible charm and a tremendous feeling of place and time. This is also a production that benefits from David Mason's clever lighting effects and Christine Fryers authentic costumes. Elgar and Alice is a rewarding piece of theatre and one, which is brought vividly to life by an extremely talented group of actors.
Bill Andrews. 2016