Stakes high for sisters in this poignant tale of romance and survival as Ladies in Lavender comes to Ilford

Ladies in Lavender leading lady Lesley Curtis in Quartet. Picture: Pradeep Lamba

Ladies in Lavender leading lady Lesley Curtis in Quartet. Picture: Pradeep Lamba - Credit: Archant

Adapting a hit film for the theatre is a serious challenge, as writer Shaun McKenna found when he was asked to bring Ladies in Lavender to the stage.

Ladies in Lavender leading lady Lesley Curtis in Quartet. Picture: Pradeep Lamba

Ladies in Lavender leading lady Lesley Curtis in Quartet. Picture: Pradeep Lamba - Credit: Archant

The play, which comes to the Kenneth More Theatre, Oakfield Road, Ilford, at the end of the month, tells the story of two ageing spinster sisters, Ursula and Janet Widdington.

Their lives are thrown into chaos when a handsome young violinist is washed ashore near their sleepy Cornish village in 1937.

The tale was adapted from a 2004 film written and directed by Charles Dance and starring Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith.

However, rather than simply staging the film, Shaun, whose previous adaptations include How Green Was My Valley and The Lord Of The Rings, was determined to make Ladies in Lavender a proper play.

“Adapting is an odd business,” he said. “Every form in which you can tell a story – film, stage play, novel, musical, radio play – has its own structures, its own rules and its own demands. It’s a little like mending a clock. You take the source material apart, lay out its constituent pieces and then put it back together in a new way.

“Almost every piece ends up in a slightly different place but, if you get it right, it will smell and feel like the original.”

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Shaun felt this was especially important for a story with such emotional heft.

“It mattered that I preserved the feeling that these small events, in this tiny world, nonetheless contain, all the big themes that have occupied us all since we crawled out of the mud – love, death, pain, faith and salvation.”

There is humour in the play, but it is at heart a story of unfulfilled dreams and unrequited love.

Its title is taken from the phrase “lace in lavender”, the name given to the early 20th century practice of putting lavender sprigs between pieces of lacework to keep them fresh when stored.

“This is, of course, exactly what the Widdington sisters have done with their hopes, dreams and passions,” said Shaun.

“In that sense, I believe, Ladies in Lavender taps into a great tradition of drama that stretches all the way from the Greeks to Avatar.

“A stranger comes to town and everything changes.”

For Shaun, who like many was touched by Dance’s evocative and heartwarming film, adapting Ladies in Lavender also changed his understanding of the story.

“The most exciting thing about my Ladies in Lavender adventure was discovering that what I thought was a charming, unusual romantic comedy is actually a battle for survival.

“For Janet, Dr Mead, Olga and Andrea the stakes are high. For Ursula, they are highest of all.”

Ladies in Lavender will run from March 23 to 25 at 7.30pm (with a 3pm matinee on the Saturday), and features the original film music written by Nigel Hess. Tickets are £11, concessions £10. Call 020 8553 4466 or visit kmtheatre.co.uk.

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