The Girl in the Picture – Review
By the Intimate Theatre company
The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum
Saturday 28 September 2019
By Citylife theatre reviewer Jono Oates
The enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa is one of the most recognisable faces in the world of art…but on Saturday evening we saw another enigmatic smiling face brought back to life, from the painting to the intimate stage at the Samuel Johnsons Birthplace Museum…that of Lichfield’s Lucy Porter.
The Intimate Theatre company told the story of Lucy, based around the painting that hangs on the wall of Sam Johnson’s birth room, via some of the key character’s in her life in an engaging, clever and witty performance.
Lucy was the daughter of Elizabeth Porter who had become Samuel Johnson’s wife in 1735. Samuel was her second marriage after the death of her first husband, Henry Porter. Samuel was 21 years younger than Elizabeth and called her by the affectionate nickname of ‘Tetty’. Lucy was the Porter’s only daughter and she lived with her mother in the Johnson family home on Breadmarket Street.
The play started in 1755, the year that Johnson had his greatest work, The Dictionary of the English Language, published after nine years of hard work and commitment. The audience were first introduced to: Sarah Johnson, Samuel’s mother; Kitty Chambers, the family servant and confidante and Lucy Porter herself. Then to the great man himself, Samuel Johnson, who provided a linking commentary throughout the various scenes of the play; then Anna Seward, the poetess known as the Swan of Lichfield, and finally the Reverend John Batteridge Pearson, a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral and the man who came to look after many of Johnson’s possessions after his death.
The play was divided up into a number of small scenes, with the five characters interwoven between scene to scene, telling Lucy’s story over a thirty-year period, finishing with the aftermath, and repercussions from, Samuel’s death in 1784.
The ‘stage’ of the play was the birth room of Samuel Johnson, on the first floor of the museum and the actors performed within a small area, with the audience sat on either side of them, making this performance by the Intimate Theatre company…well…very intimate. Every facial expression, every knowing smile, wink, sneer and stage cough could be seen, and heard, very clearly and it was easy to feel that you were very much part of the performance. Characters would enter, and leave the room as they were required, or as their character roles came to an end, so that the stage did not become too cluttered and the actors were visible at all times.
Adrienne Swallow was Sam’s mother, Sarah Johnson, and although her role was the most fleeting, she played the homely, comfortable and kindly matriarch, who was not the evil step-mother to a young Lucy, very convincingly. Stephanie Mee was Kitty Chambers, the long-term servant of the Johnson family, who maintained a close friendship with Lucy and was very good, with comic asides and tittle-tattle about some of the other residents of Lichfield at that time. Lucy Porter was portrayed by Denise baker in the title role of the Girl in the Picture, moving easily from her first appearance as a young girl in a strange house, to an older woman, beset by hardship. Without any prosthetics, multiple costume changes or several layers of make-up, this was a wonderful achievement and, again, was very convincing. Hannah Davies was the effervescent, and self-willed, Anna Seward and was superb as the poetess who was not afraid to stand up for herself and challenge the views and opinions of Samuel Johnson himself. A very detailed, and researched, portrayal, right down to the pronounced limping walk, as Anna had suffered a fractured knee following an accident. Robin Lewitt had great fun in the role of the pompous and strait-laced Reverend Pearson as he vainly tried to justify his position and his role as the fortunate recipient of some of Johnson’s most treasured possessions.
Finally, completing the cast was Adrian Venables as the master of the master of the house, Dr Samuel Johnson. A fantastic performance, playing the brooding, caustic, at times confidant, at times troubled and self-critical, at times jovial and avuncular, Johnson. Always a presence, even when sitting, or standing, off-stage, a totally believable performance especially as he sat, wheezing, coughing and fighting for breath, leaning heavily on his walking staff, as Johnson approached the last chapters of his own life, a very watchable performance. One of my fellow audience members said that she thought it was the most accurate portrayal, from her personal understanding of the great man, that she had seen performed on stage – and I did not disagree with her.
The script, by David Titley, who also directed it, was truly delightful. Light, gentle, funny, sympathetic and superbly timed, with each line suiting each character perfectly, it was easy to follow and enjoy. The play covered a thirty-year period in a performance lasting under an hour and do achieve that while making the whole play flow, make sense and be wholly believable was a great achievement. As well as the main characters lots of other Lichfeldians, some well-known and others less so, were woven in to the storyline. David ‘Young Davey’ Garrick, along with his mentor Gilbert Walmsley, Hester Thrale (later Piozzi); Captain John Andre; Reverend John Saville, close ‘friend’ of Anna Seward; Dr Erasmus Darwin and his fellow member of the Birmingham Lunar Society, Richard Edgeworth all made unseen appearances thus creating a rich tapestry of the essential characters of Lichfield’s glorious 18th century Georgian period.
The Girl in the Picture was superbly brought to life and brought into the room, by the Intimate Theatre company in the most intimate, evocative and eminently appropriate of locations. I’m unsure as to whether the play will receive another showing but, if it does, I strongly recommend that you book your place in the front row and watch the Girl in the Picture come to life right in front of you.
The Girl in the Picture by the Intimate Theatre Company was played in two performances on Saturday 28 September 2019 at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum.
*Photo credit David Titley