The New Vic’s production of William Inge’s 1955 play Bus Stop is an absolute gem. It is beautifully cast, beautifully directed and sincerely and skilfully acted. The company has given a piece of delicate, heartbreaking, wise and humane writing the production which it deserves. There is nothing that I would change. Nothing at all.
I have been going to the theatre regularly for over thirty years now and I have never seen a production of one of William Inge’s plays. I can’t even remember turning down the opportunity to see one, which suggests to me that he has been unfairly neglected here in the UK. This is strange, since he had enormous success as a writer of both plays and screenplays in his day, winning a Pulizer prize and an Oscar. He always remained an outsider as a closeted gay man, and vulnerable to depression and when his work finally fell out of fashion he committed suicide at the age of 60. While this vulnerability must have been hell to live with it gives his work a compassion and heart that shines out now as strongly as it ever did.
Bus Stop, one of his great successes, is set in a small café beside a greyhound bus halt. The characters are small town people who work in the café, live nearby, or come in off the bus when it is forced to spend a much longer wait than its usual twenty minutes thanks to a snow storm. All of them are “people of the wind” looking for love and comfort in a world that can be rather forlorn. There is little plot, we are simply allowed to get to know them and slowly their weaknesses and foibles are made clear before the storm clears and the bus leaves. It is a small detailed slice of Americana, shot through with the attitudes and mores of its time. There are no bad guys, and no heroes. People and life are more complex than that and William Inge has the insight and compassion to explain this to us.
The central relationship which is explored is that of Cherie, a sweet blonde nightclub singer, and her would be husband Bo. Cherie is looking for love and beginning to wonder if you have to “find out for yourself that it doesn’t exist”. She has no illusions, life has already swept them away. She knows that she will probably finally settle for second best and end up in Montana with the young cowboy who has slept with her and who is now trying to persuade her, ham-fistedly, into marriage. Louise Dylan, a young actress fresh out of drama school, provides a beautiful, heartfelt portrait of Cherie’s enthusiasm and insecurity. She understands the character perfectly and thanks to her subtlety so do we. It is a lovely moment when she puts on her nightclub costume and performs That Old Black Magic. You can see straightaway both why she was given the job in the club and why she has absolutely no future as a singer. She is delightful. Louise Dylan is a star of the future if ever there was one. It needs real talent if you are to take on Marilyn Monroe and win, creating a living breathing woman of your own. She can be very proud.
Her would be husband Bo is also beautifully played, by Phillip Correia. He is a rough diamond, a good hard working, loud mouthed cowboy who has absolutely no idea of polite behaviour unless it involves horses. He is travelling back to his ranch with an older cowboy Virgil who has been a surrogate father to him since he was orphaned at the age of ten. Virgil ( played sensitively by Simon Armstrong) has done his best to show him why his way of treating people doesn’t provide him with the results he’d like but Bo still insists on going through life like a bull in a china shop. His is probably the most touching journey in the play as his love for Cherie, a love that he has trouble even recognising, let alone expressing, leads him towards maturity. When he says to her, “I love you just as you are. I don’t care how you got there” the barriers between them come down and it is a moment of pure joy.
The owner of the café Grace, played with heart by Abigail McKern has settled for a lonely life, on the basis that it is less lonely than the one she shared with her husband before she kicked him out. She keeps going by looking forward to her thrice weekly visits from her lover, Carl, played by Brendan Charleson, the married driver of the bus. It’s not much of a life but she keeps busy and finds time to think of others, especially young Elma who helps her in the café after school. This is a performance full of promise from Beth Park who is another young actress fresh out of drama school. Elma’s innocence and untainted ability to see the good in everybody is dangerous to her and you watch her youthful openness with great pleasure, while at the same time knowing that she has no choice but to lose it. The type of letcherous old drunk who preys on young women, represented by Doctor Lyman, will not hoodwink her so easily after she has spent a couple of terms at college. He has squandered all his chances in life and is no longer able to take comfort from her pure hearted admiration for him. Patrick Driver manages to be both quite loathsome and also ultimately moving in the part, which is a credit to him.
The only character who has no real journey during the play, there to provide a kind of unchanging moral centre, is the local sheriff Will Masters, played with the right kind of authority by Tom Hodgkins. There is a world outside the café, which has enormous bearing on what happens inside it, and he is the link.
The staging is perfect for the round at the Stephen Joseph. We are able to admire the attention to detail which has gone into Libby Watson’s design, relishing the original 1950’s newspapers and magazines that are on set, and the colours and dowdy modernism of the time are perfectly reproduced. The director James Dacre clearly had a deep understanding of the play and the characters and did absolutely nothing to get in the way which is just as I like it.
I began by saying that this production is an absolute gem. Just to clarify, by gem I mean diamond. Beautifully cut with all the facets reflecting a really classic piece of writing that deserves to live forever. If it keeps getting productions like this it will.
The photographs are production stills from the New Vic production taken by Andrew Billington.