The title Black Chiffon suggests something rather racy and Elinor Glyn-esque. In Lesley Storm’s 1949 play, the titular nightgown is an ‘exotic piece of nonsense’ shoplifted by upper-middle-class Chelsea housewife Alicia Christie a few days before her son’s wedding just because she wants it.
Clive Brill’s production is impeccably tasteful, sensitively acted and visually handsome, set in a plush drawing room by Beth Colley, with elegant costumes by Neil Gordon.
Abigail Cruttenden is tremendous as Alicia, consumed with anxiety about impending empty-nest syndrome following years of attempting to keep the peace between her boorish husband Robert (Ian Kelly) and adored son Roy (Jack Staddon). There’s a telling comment about how women, unlike men, don’t carry ID and so the Freudian defence constructed by Dr Hawkins (Nicholas Murchie) is an identity that is imposed on her, resulting in the dilemma of whether she should go along with it.
Black Chiffon the theatrical equivalent of a ‘woman’s picture’ with potboiler-ish elements, but it’s compelling as a family drama with insight into the psychiatric treatment of privileged women. It’s of its time in its treatment of mental illness: there’s no mention of menopausal symptoms as a possible defence but daughter Thea’s (Eva Feiler) baby bump is a reminder of how rare it is to see pregnancy depicted in plays of this vintage.
In a touching example of theatrical circularity, Jemima Watling plays sweet-natured bride-to-be Louise, the role created by her grandmother Patricia Watling in the 1950 Broadway run. If the wedding does go ahead, it’s unlikely that black chiffon will feature on the honeymoon.