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American Venus/This Thing Called Love

Sophia Swannell and Brian Deacon in American Venus at Fred’s Place Theatre, London Sophia Swannell and Brian Deacon in American Venus at Fred’s Place Theatre, London

Flickering between her life as a mostly bedridden, grumpy old woman in the 1980s and as an effervescent 1920s starlet, American Venus is based on the story of silent-film actor Louise Brooks. Playing Brooks in her later years, Susan Penhaligon is an absolute delight, savouring the bitter woman’s rudeness and cynicism with glee.

Strong support is provided by the steady stream of characters who bestow a great deal of – sometimes unwarranted – goodwill on Louise. Mary Keegan gives a particularly impressive performance as carer Phyllis (she has an impressively soothing singing voice), as does Nicholas Waring as gay friend Stan, whose accounts of his disintegrating love life are both shocking and amusing.

The frustration of old age (“The worst is when the sexual thing isn’t there anymore,” laments Louise) is laid bare by the old woman’s sensual memories that share the stage with her, brought to life exquisitely by Angharad George-Carey and Tim Walton. Knowing that the story is based loosely on reality makes the piece all the more wistful and melancholy.

Love and later life are also explored in two-hander This Thing Called Love, which tells the story of the budding relationship between a middle-aged couple. As Maggie and Jack, Felicity Dean and Walter van Dyk are terribly awkward and awfully British, making hesitant, toe-curling conversation in the lead-up to their first night of passion.

Epitomised by Jack’s Hugh Grant-style “May I?” as he makes a move to help Maggie out of her dressing gown, just when the stiff-upper-lip gags are starting to wear thin, the tempo changes and the mood of the story shifts towards something more complex and interesting. For all the (justified) criticism that theatre has little to offer regarding the love lives of middle-aged people, particularly women, This Thing Called Love helps redress the balance somewhat.

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Verdict
A pair of polished and charming portrayals of the way life can progress in later years, focusing on the key themes of loneliness and love
Catherine Usher
Catherine Usher is a freelance writer, theatre critic and subeditor. She has been a journalist for more than 15 years and worked in The Stage's production department from 2007-15
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