Monday 19 September 2022

The Clothes They Stood Up In

 Nottingham Playhouse

17th September, 2022, matinee

It never rains, but it pours

Adrian Scarborough adapts and stars in the first stage production of Alan Bennett’s 1997 novella The Clothes They Stood Up In at Nottingham Playhouse. About a married couple who return from the opera to find their flat completely empty, the piece reflects on how we’re prone to complicating our lives with belongings, and explores unrealised dreams in a stifled marriage. In Adam Penford’s production, which has the pacing of a thriller, the result is a hugely enjoyable dark comedy in which Scarborough captures the essence of Bennett.

In adapting it from the page, Scarborough maintains the fluidity of the novella. We start in an opera house after the curtain falls on Così Fan Tutte quickly followed by a scene on the bus home. These short scenes demonstrate some witty observations which help to establish the characters of Mr and Mrs Ransome (Scarborough and Sophie Thompson). Firmly rooted in the trappings and routines of middle-class life, Scarborough quickly introduces us to the predicament in which they find themselves. On entering their Notting Hill apartment, they find it stripped bare. Furniture, clothes, pictures, teabags, even the toilet roll! Anything that’s not been nailed down and even some things that are have mysteriously vanished. Assuming they’ve been burgled the couple set about rebuilding their lives whilst also trying to solve who done it, how they pulled it off and why. One of the biggest achievements is that the play feels like it’s always belonged on the stage and feels part of the theatrical canon. I’ll avoid spoilers, but there’s a striking similarity with Bennett’s Enjoy (1980) in which the council wants to demolish a terraced house and rebuild it brick-by-brick in a museum. The accumulation of belongings over a lifetime is somewhat central to his People (2012) as well. In this way, it also somewhat reminded me of Michael Frayn’s Here (1993) in which, faced with an empty flat, a couple begin to construct their lives together.

Objects, then, carry meaning: they reflect where we’ve come from and what our social status is. Robbed of these possessions, what are we left with? For Rosemary Ransome in particular, it invites her to start again and think of new possibilities. She befriends the man who runs the corner shop, she discovers the internet, daytime TV and beanbags. The burglary even has some sexual awakenings. Thompson portrays her liberation, kindness and quiet hopes with care. Ultimately, she learns how to accept to let go and this is what sets her free. Maurice’s relationship to objects is more complex, in fact they seem to torment him more and more. Like with Ned in Jez Butterworth’s Parlour Song (2008), which also deals with disappearing belongings in a nightmarish world of middle-class inertia, Maurice loses his sense of self along with his belongings. Scarborough hilariously plays Maurice’s building frustrations, at one point climbing a drainpipe to try to retrieve them.

Scarborough has chosen to modernise the setting. References to mobile phones and Brexit occasionally jar with other dialogue but I feel this helps to emphasise how insular their lives are. The play is so much about the Ransome’s idiosyncrasies but, outside their flat, we’re privy to the very different world of multicultural, 21st century Britain. References to police waiting times, petty street crime, drug addiction and more show that Bennett firmly has his finger on the pulse of societal issues. Ned Costello, Charlie de Melo and Natasha Magigi all deftly bring to life a range of supporting characters to people the play.

From corner shops, buses, warehouses and (a range of!) apartments, Robert Jones’ eye for detail in his design is superb. Elevating the apartment slightly looks aesthetically pleasing but also adds to the feel that the Ransome’s lives are compartmentalised. As well as being a much welcome addition to Bennett’s work, Penford keeps the pace moving nicely so it feels like both a thriller and a comedic romp. It certainly gave the audience what they were looking for at the performance we saw.

The Clothes They Stood Up In plays at Nottingham Playhouse until 1st October. For more information, please visit

Adrian Scarborough and Sophie Thompson in The Clothes They Stood Up In.
Credit: The Other Richard

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