Review: A Picture of Autumn

by Lynn on April 26, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streaming for free from the Mint Theatre in New York City until June 13, 2021.

Written by N.C. Hunter

Directed by Gus Kaikkonen

Set by Charles Morgan

Costumes by Sam Fleming

Lights by William Armstrong

Sound by Jane Shaw

Cast: Helen Cespedes

Christian Coulson

Barbara Eda-Young

Mark Emerson

Katie Firth

Jonathan Hogan

George Morfogen

Paul Niebanck

Jill Tanner

An interesting look at a story that is all too familiar, this with a British twist.

A Picture of Autumn by N.C. Hunter first done in London in 1956 and then mainly forgotten. It was revived by The Mint Theatre in New York City in 2013. This is an archived streaming of the production.

The Story. A Picture of Autumn was written by N.C. Hunter, once a popular British playwright. The play takes place in a once grand country house in the 1950s, in Britain. Sir Charles Denham, his wife Margaret, and Charles’ brother Harry live there. There is one servant called “Nurse” who has been with the family for decades.  She seems to make cocoa all the time and sings hymns the rest of the time.  Margaret takes care of the house and laments it because the house is so big and unwieldy. It’s shabby, needs repair and certainly more servants to tend it and it costs a lot of money.

Sir Charles and Margaret are expecting their son Robert, his wife Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s daughter Felicity to arrive any minute. Robert, Elizabeth and Felicity have been in Africa for 10 years and are returning home. As soon as they arrive, Robert suggests that the house is too much trouble for his aged parents and uncle to tend and wants them to sell it to people who want to transform it into a technical school. This will allow his parents and uncle to buy a smaller home closer to town.  To give us a sense of the size of the house, there are 18 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms (!) stables, acres of gardens, now weeds, lousy wiring, no phone and it’s two miles from town with no transportation. Margaret knows that selling is a wise suggestion, but of course she and her husband and brother-in-law dither about selling because it’s been in the family since 1762. And Harry’s wife died there 40 years before in her 20s and that huge house is where he lived and at 83 Harry is too old to move.  

Production and comment.  The story of course sounds familiar? There are echoes of Russia and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and even Uncle Vanyain the play. Although those echoes of Russia and Chekhov are so strong, A Picture of Autumn is quintessentially British.  N.C. Hunter’s humour and language have that air of the upper classes. These characters embrace tradition, history and family but they also see the wisdom of Robert’s suggestion, or at least Margaret does.  Director Gus Kaikkonen and his design team: set by Charles Morgan and costumes by Sam Fleming have created a set that seems huge because of a wide, curved staircase that you know leads upstairs to lots of room. The furnishings are faded. The men wear ties, all the time. Harry goes shooting for a pigeon and he comes back in his hunting jacket and wears a tie. Charles doesn’t go anywhere and sleeps most of the day but he too wears a tie. I always smile at this ‘formality when I see it in films of the Royal Family. Fascinating.

Hunter beautifully creates the maddening dithering of the three seniors. Sir Charles, a gentle Jonathan Hogan, spends his time napping, as does his brother Harry (a doddery but also commanding George Morfogen) when Harry is not noting in a book the highs and lows of the day’s temperatures and then comparing them to last year. Margaret (a gracious, busy Jill Tanner) tends the house which is a monster of a job, and the others don’t have a clue.

It’s an observation of another time and a class that those not in it don’t understand but perhaps find fascinating. In Chekhov at question was what to do with the valuable cherry orchard. Chekhov solved it in a moving, poignant way. In N.C Hunter at question is what to do with the grand manor house. Hunter’s solution was fascinating in its own way.

I found his writing smart and funny. For example, a character who was really bad at business had this line: “In the business world one wants to get in at the bottom and move steadily upwards, like yeast.” Loved that line.

N.C. Hunter filled his play with terrific dialogue and a situation so beautifully established with these characters you wanted to yell at them to make a decision! They had other ideas. 

A Picture of Autumn streams for free on the Mint Theatre website until June 13

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