A 70-minute one-woman show about an unexpected love affair, at first tentative then defiantly burgeoning. It sounds altogether ordinary in prospect. What distinguishes the protagonist of Noëlle Châtelet's La femme coquelicot, rendered into English as The Colour Of Poppies, is that she is 75 years old, her lover more or less likewise (though no age is specified for him).
Chatelet (the sister of former French Socialist leader Lionel Jospin) walks a delicate path with some skill, to judge from her novel's stage adaptation by director Yann Le Gouic de Kervéno and its English translation by John Roberts. Narrator Marthe, long since widowed out of a colourless marriage, is both transported by what to her is the freshness of love and realistically aware of the various ramifications of her own age.
The strands of candour and ardour are twisted together adeptly, and augmented by flecks of matter-of-fact humour, as when the process of preparing for a date includes wondering, "When should I take my pills?" Being French, of course, Marthe also occasionally gets metaphysical, considering all too deeply whether she is "free" for a night out. (The same play on words cropped up 30 years ago in a Monty Python routine about Jean-Paul Sartre.) Conversely, when she speaks of feelings in her heart, the figurative meaning co-exists with the anatomically literal in an unobtrusively powerful superimposition.
We tend to expect our senior citizens either to be romantically settled or to have retired also from the arena of love. Consequently, a piece such as this is daring and even challenging, in its way. And its way is not to sensationalise or overblow any aspect of the matter. Marthe simply shares her thoughts with us, intimately, unfussily.
Faith Brook sits for the most part in a rattan utility chair at a table. When she speaks of Marthe and her lover Félix going to bed for the first time, she steps out of her simple grey dress and stands in her shift for the remainder of the scene; afterwards, she is visibly reborn by donning a red dress, exactly the colour of poppies. It's a masterly performance by Brook, pitched perfectly for the closeness of the 70-seat Jermyn Street Theatre, and making a quiet but heartfelt point.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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