Spring and Port Wine


Review of Spring and Port Wine at Bolton Octagon.

It is 1966, and The Who’s ‘My Generation’ rocks out rebelliously in the opening moments of Bolton Octagon’s production of ‘Spring and Port Wine’. On stage, the Crompton’s tidy and ordered traditional family home speaks of an earlier era – there’s a cloth on the table in the front room, antimacassars over the chairs, and ornaments perched neatly on doilies.

Husband and wife Rafe and Daisy Crompton address one another as “father” and “mother”. At the end of every week, Rafe’s children queue up to hand him a share of their wages, while Daisy is required to keep a written record of her household spend for his regular inspection.

When the show opens, Daisy’s big white handbag sits trustingly unclasped on top of the sideboard – a worryingly lax sign in a place where “money runs the house”.

Designer Katie Scott’s set is a period-perfect extravaganza, with its brown wooden furniture, orange sofa, and tortoise-shaped pouffe in front of the TV. A couple of huge geometric photo frames hang over the stage, filled with black and white family portraits. Even the auditorium’s entrance tunnels get a makeover – with coat hooks, chintzy wall lamps, and a set of ceramic flying ducks.

Rafe is never short of some choice words to keep his family in check, and Bill Naughton’s writing captures the dialect and rhythms of his Bolton setting.

I’ll thank you not to dip your nib where there’s no ink”, Rafe declares at one point – shutting down eldest son Harold’s attempt to intervene in an argument.

However, discontent is brewing among the younger members of the household. There’s a new world out there, but Rafe’s rules mean there are no late nights out for his daughters, no smoking indoors, and even the News of the World is frowned upon.

Ironically, it’s not sex, or drugs, or rock’n’roll that kickstart an almighty family row – it’s an uneaten herring.

Feeling a bit delicate, daughter Daisy politely declines the fish that her mother puts in front of her one evening. Despite her father’s insistence that “this is a house not a cafeteria”, she is not for budging. So, Rafe decrees that the herring is served up at every mealtime until his daughter eats it.

Daisy is as strong-willed as her father, and things soon go from bad to worse – dragging more and more of the family into the conflict.

Artistic Director Lotte Wakeham has deliberately chosen to stage the show in the round to allow the audience to fully experience being in the Crompton’s front room. While I can appreciate the intention, in a household busy with interaction and where so much can go unsaid, it’s frustrating to be staring at the back of some characters’ heads at pivotal moments.

Rafe Crompton is a tough character to pitch to a modern audience, but Les Dennis is on top form in the first half. As Rafe, he rules over his family with unwavering certainty. Crucially, he fails to grasp that the strict household regime, which has served him so well to date, is on a collision course with both his increasingly assertive children and the changing outside world.

Admirably, Dennis makes no attempt to elicit the audience’s sympathy as his domineering patriarch doubles down – seemingly oblivious to his children’s belief that his behaviour is turning their home into a “rotten prison”.

The performance feels less assured in the second half – and frustratingly, as the show heads towards its admittedly over neat conclusion, what could have been portrayed as a clever and well-disguised retreat on Rafe’s part, is a bit too close to becoming a smug and knowing triumph. It leaves a slightly bitter taste.

Fortunately, Mina Anwar’s rock-solid Daisy Crompton is a steadying influence throughout the show. Her warmth never dims, even in the most trying of circumstances, and Anwar’s restless performance – constantly on the go – keeps the production on its toes.

Naughton’s comedy-drama dishes up several amusing treats – including the Crompton’s busybody next-door neighbour. It’s a role that Isabel Ford played in Oldham Coliseum’s 2017 production of the same play – and if you pardon the expression, I suspect Ford has been busy polishing her Betsy-Jane since its first airing. She revels in the role – skilfully weaving in elements of farce that reach a high point when she energetically sizes up the Crompton’s locked sideboard in a desperate attempt to crack open Rafe’s cashbox.

In among all the laughter, it is easy to forget that there’s some subtlety to Naughton’s script. A pleasing sense that lives could carry on and develop beyond the confines of the running time. Suspicions that Hilda Crompton’s herring aversion may be due to a pregnancy are alluded to and discussed, but never confirmed. Similarly, Wakeham’s production, hints that there might be more to youngest son Wilf’s admiration for his sister’s fiancée than just hero-worship.

Emotions will often unexpectedly burst to the surface, and they feel more real as a result. Natalie Blair’s defiant Hilda suddenly finding everything too much and bursting into tears; or Mina Anwar’s Daisy vehemently asking Rafe to “hold me tight” – a flash of the affection stored up behind the relationship’s business-like façade.

For all the noise in the Crompton household, it’s the quiet storms that made the most impact on me. Monica Sagar and Adam Fenton deliver a couple of finely drawn performances as eldest daughter Florence and her fiancée Arthur.

When Rafe brutally lays down the law once more in the middle of a family meal, Fenton’s genial Arthur visibly wrestles to contain his feelings, yet when he courageously stands up to his future father-in-law, he is furious but controlled.

Sagar is cool, calm, and collected as ‘daddy’s girl’ Florence. Strikingly, when forced by her father to choose between him and her future husband, she clutches her mother and lets out a short, muffled scream of anguish that is just heart-breaking.

Spring and Port Wine’ isn’t short on entertaining plot devices – an inquest on a herring, a pawned overcoat, and a forced-open cashbox – but they’re unlikely to be the reason for the play’s sustained appeal over decades. It’s Naughton’s all-too-real depiction of inter-generational conflicts, and a family’s growing pains, that continues to have resonance.

It shouldn’t have to be a battle bringing up a family” declares Rafe. If only. Lotte Wakeham’s nippy production leans into the comedy that flows through the Crompton’s domestic skirmishes, while her strong cast transcend the play’s time-capsule trappings to create characters that are genuinely relatable.

Bolton Octagon.

Performance seen on 7 February 2023.

Spring and Port Wine runs at Bolton Octagon from 3 February 2023 to 4 March 2023.

Prices – tickets start from £15.

Images by Pamela Raith.


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