Shambolic Theatre's An Imaginative Woman is charming, cheering and not a little cheeky. This is assured, polished and enjoyable theatre, still fresh, fitting well into the fringe but with a gloss that shows that practice, effort and persistence pays off in this business.
Based on a short story by Thomas Hardy, aspiring poetess Ella with son but minus husband sweeps into Mrs Hooper's home, seeking lodging by the sea for literary inspiration. The poet Mr Robert True already lodges there, but is never seen Ella commandeers his room for herself. She becomes obsessed with the absent man but Mrs Hooper, still mourning her dead husband, makes excuses not to introduce him. The power play, mildly mocking look at artistic types and relationship between women with no men but memories and shadows of them is handled deftly, confidently and creatively by the company - the son Thomas is a puppet, sometimes just a crumpled shawl or scrumpled piece of paper. Musical score by Emilia Brodie's live violin and rain stick provides period setting and atmosphere, two elements otherwise beyond a two-hander with minimal props and effects such as this.
Alice Parsloe as Mrs Hooper and Lesley Cook as Ella are just on the right side of Victorian diction which is often overdone and under-researched in period productions. They are fun to watch: they seem to enjoy performing. There is no hamming up the roles however (though Cook tends towards the camp in comic moments) and Parsloe exudes dignified sadness without mawkishness as a grieving widow.
Especially well portrayed was the formal relationship between these two women with differing social and economic status and how they negotiate their shared accommodation. Their stiffness with one another is constantly undermined by their joint passion for writing; they also share absent significant male partners which makes their relationship even more interesting, intimate and enjoyable, especially when the mystery of Mr True is solved at the end. An Imaginative Woman returns to London this autumn, so if you missed this chance to see it, you'll have your chance again soon.