The Despondent Divorcée is a weird old title for this show. Firstly, it makes it sound like an ironic caper – when in fact, it’s a deeply serious tale. And secondly, the script doesn’t actually feature any divorcées at all. But it does deliver a thoughtful and accomplished 1940’s period play, which nods to the canon of country-house mystery and poses ethical questions that remain strikingly relevant in our present day.
They’ve taken the name from a photograph: a photograph that I happen to have seen, but which remains tantalisingly obscure during the play itself. It’s a genuine picture from a 1944 newspaper, capturing a woman in the process of taking her own life by jumping from the eighth floor of a New York hotel. The Despondent Divorcée uses this profoundly disturbing image as a starting point, weaving a completely invented history for the deceased young lady, and imagining how her life and passing might have affected those who witnessed her demise.
In structure, it’s a classic detective story – featuring a group of people stranded in a building they can’t leave, and a series of interviews which slowly reveal more about the events of the fatal night. In a truly inspired move, however, Hook Hitch Theatre’s central character isn’t a detective, but the journalist who snapped that notorious photograph. As he tries to unravel just why the woman jumped, the fresh-faced reporter meets a large and varied cast of thoroughly believable characters – ranging from a nervous teenage bellhop to the overbearing hotel manager, with his slicked-back hair and swaggering grin.
These could all so easily have been cardboard stereotypes, yet both script and acting make them fully-rounded individuals, with stories detailed enough to make you care. Side-plots – like that gawky bellhop’s secret romance – add just the right amount of texture and interest, and the storylines invariably converge back onto the kind-hearted figure at the heart of it all: the woman who jumped, Mrs Frances Duprée.
The dénouement feels rather rushed and sudden, and they don’t do a huge amount to explore the big moral question of whether it’s ever right to take a photograph of the end of someone’s life. But there are some interesting angles in the script, about the voraciousness of the media and the Dianafication of those who die amidst tragedy.
So it isn’t life-changing theatre, but The Despondent Divorcée is well-conceived, well-scripted, well-acted and beautifully-drawn. Costumes and lighting design transcend the usual standards of the Fringe, and the space it’s performed in – a lovely drawing-room at historic Riddle’s Court – contributes to an immersive and thoroughly compelling hour. There’s even the occasional jazz number to help set the mood. If you enjoy period drama, The Despondent Divorcée belongs near the top of your must-see list.