How far have we have travelled in our experience of mental illness, both in its analysis or treatment, and stage depictions?

Anyone who’s ever sneaked an extra item through the self-service checkout in the supermarket or ‘accidentally’ packed a hotel towel may identify with Abigail Cruttenden’s crisply vulnerable Alicia.  A respectable middle-class postwar housewife overly devoted to her son and distracted at his upcoming wedding who shoplifts a black chiffon nightdress from a store that’s probably Harrods.

What follows is painful for Alicia, subjected to cross-examination by an unsympathetic cardboard patriarch of a husband, anxious offspring and the dreariest psychiatrist seen on stage until Peter Shaeffer wrote Equus

It’s also quite painful to watch.

Because it’s 1949, a period where ordinary middle-class families lived in houses on Chelsea Embankment, where the whiff of scandal mustn’t taint the son’s new in-laws who are ‘Old India Hands’ from the end of the Raj, and where Freudian psychoanalysis is both completely unsupportive of the patient and in this case, two steps away from ‘hysterical woman’ in its diagnosis.

So this worthy and smartly-presented transfer from the splendid Frinton Summer Theatre – somewhere well worth a visit in a day out from Liverpool Street – is a curio, and interesting as a period piece, but it’s not a great night out.

Although the cast came directly from a long run in the Essex venue, there’s a lot of hesitancy over lines and cues and the whole pace of Clive Brill’s production is sluggish.


Author ‘Lesley Storm’ didn’t write much else for the theatre and structurally Black Chiffon owes a lot to Priestley’s An Inspector Calls which had opened three years earlier in London – an external character asks some fairly predicable questions and the entire family house of cards collapses.

Always a pleasure to see Cruttenden, consistently the best actor in Not Going Out – did you know she was once married to Sean Bean? – and both Jack Staddon as the Oedipal son and Eva Feiler as the pregnant daughter, give good value.

But it’s still a long night for an old nightie.



Until 12 October.