I Thought I Heard a Rustling
A play by Alan Plater
Tags: librarians broadway I thought I heard a rustling
Added: 9 months ago
An ex-miner turned poet is appointed writer-in-residence at Eastwood branch library.
Ellen, senior librarian, soon realizes the feckless but charming Geordie is no poet.
Despite this she finds him highly entertaining, much to the disgust of Nutley, an earnest young man who covets the writer-in-residence role.
These three find themselves an unlikely but united strike group when the Libraries sub-committee proposes demolishing the library.
I Thought I Heard a Rustling
by Alan Plater
I Thought I Heard a Rustling is a comedy – about a very serious topical dilemma: would you rather live in a town with twenty-seven supermarkets and one library, or a town with twenty-eight supermarkets and no library? With passing swipes at Professional Northerners and pompous local councillors, Alan Plater's play is a Celebration of the Written Word, suggesting as a basis for negotiation that Books are a Good Idea. First seen at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in January 1991 starring Annette Crosbie and Paul Copley. (Cast 3m, 2f)
Unpublished "writer"-in-residence and alleged former coal miner Bill Robson is presented at a pitiful press conference in the Eastwood Road branch library on the edge of London. Ellen Scott is head librarian, and she realizes immediately that the poems Robson submitted in his application for the position are plagiarized.
Ensuing scenes in the library between Scott and Robson are most amusing. Scott is an ironice quipster and lover of literature who finds Robson's brazen naivete baffling and outrageous. Robson sloughs off his task of criticizing would-be writers' amateurish bilge onto Scott but lines up solidly with her to defend the library against the town council's plan to sell the building to make room for a supermarket. Robson helps her save the library; if it takes a pack of lies to do the job, it is still a job well done.
Scott is a strong character who likes her work and treats it as a calling: "Art and Beauty and Truth are the only things that matter a damn. I try to put it into practice in a tatty little branch library patronised by deaf old women and short-sighted old men." It's a funny and even inspiring play. (The title constitutes a running joke in the work.)
For anyone like me who has greatly admired Alan Plater's other work, I Thought I Heard a Rustling is a big disappointment. Yes, the old skill with dialogue is still there, and some good jokes, but apart from that it's very thin stuff. The central situation, a con man pulling the wool over the eyes of a staggeringly inept local authority, might have been more interesting had the fraud been more ingenious, the prize of greater value than a stint as writer-in-residence at a moribund public library, and the consequences of discovery more serious than endangering a local councillor's re-election. And we might have been more firmly gripped if the dénouement had been of greater moment than the saving of a branch library which even the notorious Borough of Hackney would have long since closed down as a waste of public money. This one-woman branch seemed to have about three customers, yet our sympathies were supposed to be engaged by the preposterous notion that the place needed an extension!
Which leaves only the interaction between the two main characters to rescue us from a potentially mind-numbing evening's theatre. Even here, Plater seems to have deliberately tried to make things more difficult for himself. Sparks are hard to strike between Ellen and Bill when she so quickly falls in with his deception and he so rapidly succumbs to the arcane joys of library cataloguing. Nor is there any sexual attraction between them to spice the dish. As for the final moral dilemma she faces, when she has to decide whether to go along with a pack of lies in order to save her "little palace of truth", she gives in far too easily to make the problem appear anything like the weighty issue we're invited to believe it is.
All in all then, a piece that might just about succeed if the two main characters were played by a couple of starry charmers like (say) Judi Dench and a younger James Bolam - the kind of actors whose charisma and brilliant technique so often deceive us into thinking some piece of theatrical fluff is more weighty than it appears on the page.
Well, that's what I thought after reading the script and before seeing the CoPS production. The greatest compliment I can pay the company is that I had an enjoyable evening despite the shortcomings of the play, though their undoubted skill didn't make me revise my basic opinion of the piece. Having now seen it as well as read it, I'm not sure anyone could have done that, not even Dame Judi.
Carol Monzeglio, as librarian Ellen, and Andy Kirtley, as the fraudulent "poet" Bill, both gave excellent performances which convinced us we were seeing real people. They worked together very well, and both had mastered the difficult art of appearing to be really listening to what the other was saying, without the kind of exaggerated reactions that less experienced actors sometimes stoop to in pursuit of that aim. Most important of all, they (and indeed all the cast) got the comedy right. I didn't spot a single joke that flopped, which is pretty unusual on the amateur stage. It's fair to say that between them they made the evening. I thought though that Bill could have smiled a bit more, and Ellen a bit less; a more coolly ironic demeanour, especially at the beginning, would have made her eventual capitulation more effective. The only other general criticism I have of them applies to some extent to all the actors: not enough was thrown away; too much emphasis was sometimes applied to lines that would have benefited from a more casual approach. You have a wonderfully intimate space at COPS, which allows you a subtlety denied to those who act in bigger theatres. There were several occasions when a lighter touch would have worked better.
Mark James, who played the journalist and unpublished novelist Nutley, is an excellent comic actor who added a lot to the success of the main partnership. I particularly enjoyed his embarrassed reaction after proposing "I love you" as one of the routine lies used in everyday life, a nice bit of business that was exaggerated enough to be funny but not so much as to jeopardise its truthfulness. But he should beware of over-exploiting his marvellously mobile face: his reaction to Bill's hatchet job on his trilogy sacrificed truth for comic effect, and the director should have reined him in at that point.
Councillor Graham, played by Claudia McKelvey, is a one-dimensional and relatively unrewarding role. The only way to play such a caricature is with the utmost earnestness, which Claudia did to great effect, getting all the laughs to which she was entitled. As did Stephen Warren, a promising young actor in the cameo role of trainee surveyor Bernard. He too has learned the important lesson that straight-faced gravity is the surest route to comic success. There were only two minor faults in his performance: the pauses before he spoke were often as funny as intended, but occasionally he prolonged them beyond the bounds of reality; secondly, it was impossible to believe that even as dim a lamp as Bernard would have been quite so inept at measuring a room. When an actor has to appear to be doing some job of work on stage, even doing it badly, the audience will instantly distinguish the real from the sham. If you're meant to be writing a letter, for example, there's no alternative but to write out the damned thing in full, because the audience will instinctively know if all you're doing is making random scribbles on the paper. In this case he should have set out each night to produce a dimensioned sketch plan of the room, and stuck to his task through thick and thin. On that subject, Ellen really seemed to be doing the cataloguing, whilst Bill looked as though he was just pretending. I will leave others to judge whether this subtlety was intended or accidental.
It was a good set, with one important reservation: it had fewer books in it than any library work room I've ever seen, and I worked in public libraries for ten years. Given the plot-line emphasis on the lack of space, that was an unfortunate failing. More bookshelves, especially downstage right, would have given Ellen an excuse to get up from her desk more often than she did. A filing cabinet up-stage left would also have been useful for the same reason. I thought it a pity that the tabs were left partly open for the scenes in the civic centre, but I'm not familiar with the restrictions imposed by your stage, so that may be unfair comment. The placing of the two desks could have been improved - I would have put Bill's nearer the down-stage left corner and Ellen's nearer the up-stage right, which would have opened up the centre of the stage and also given a diagonal line between Bill and Ellen when they were both seated, always a more interesting arrangement than the almost straight-across line we actually got.
Props were excellent, and I particularly liked the trilogy, which was both funny and authentic looking. Most impressive of all was the match between the book titles mentioned by Ellen and the actual volumes she was holding. Nothing is more irritating than seeing a book used on stage which perfectly obviously can't be the one a character is referring to, but it's a distressingly common fault.
The music was well chosen, and the lighting - well, as someone who has in the past designed and operated lights, I will only say that I didn't notice it. No lighting designer can hope for higher praise.
Experienced directors know well that if a play flops it's their fault, whereas if it succeeds it's all down to the actors. I've pointed out the things I thought could have been better, but I haven't praised the directors for the much greater number of things that were absolutely right. So let me say in conclusion that I thought this an excellent production of a curate's egg of a play, and I'm certain that good direction had a great deal to do with the enjoyment I and the rest of the audience got from it.