REVIEW: The Meeting, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until August 11

Laurie Davidson and Lydia Leonard. Photo by Helen Maybanks
Laurie Davidson and Lydia Leonard. Photo by Helen Maybanks

Charlotte Jones’ fascinating, complex drama – at times comedy; towards the end full-on thriller –  makes for compelling viewing as it slowly, quietly, powerfully draws us in.

Vicki Mortimer’s ingenious set gives the stage remarkable depth while retaining a simplicity which gives director Natalie Abrahami the perfect platform. On it she orchestrates it all to near perfection – from the least promising of premises.

A play about an isolated Quaker community at a time of threatened Napoleonic invasion hardly seemed the most glittering prospect for a night out; yet all concerned conjure a little theatrical magic here for a piece which might just, on longer reflection, find itself nestling up there alongside Arturo Ui, Taking Sides and Collaboration as the best the Minerva has given us in years.

The very final moments probably need revisiting; and the dangling chairs are most certainly a misjudgement, faintly funny when you really don’t want them to be.

But elsewhere there is a huge amount to admire, particularly Lydia Leonard giving a performance as Rachel as rich and rewarding as the play itself: a woman trapped by the silence of her Quaker surroundings and by the silence of her deaf mother (Jean St Clair) and yet desperate to have a voice and be heard; a woman traumatised by grief and longing for love; a passionate unfulfilled woman imprisoned within the narrowest of confines.

Leonard is superb – and so is Laurie Davidson as Nathaniel, the mysterious intruder who effectively lights the touch paper.

It all starts quietly enough, maybe just a little laboured in its exposition, but Nathaniel’s eruption soon shows how fragile the current set-up actually is. The first half ends with a moment which still draws a gasp for all that you know it is coming. The second half plunges Rachel into the most impossible of positions, seemingly damned whatever she does. The greatest tribute is that there are moments when you wonder whether you aren’t actually watching the dramatisation of some long lost Thomas Hardy.

It isn’t long before old resentments and jealousies come pouring out and violence seems inevitable in a community which rates restraint above absolutely everything. Charlotte Jones takes us into some very dark places, and the cast respond with huge skill and presence.

But definitely, those dangling chairs really are going to have to go...

See also: https://www.chichester.co.uk/whats-on/theatre-and-comedy/chichester-understudy-proves-the-show-must-go-on-1-8561930