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Penny Cook, Benjamin Hoetjes and Sharon Flanagan. All images: Clare Hawley.

THEATRE: 16 JULY 2015

By TONI CARROLL

Ladies in Lavender, by Shaun McKenna | Directed by Nicole Buffoni

Ensemble Theatre | Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, Sydney | Until 15 August

The story of Ladies in Lavender took a roundabout route to reach the Ensemble Theatre stage.

In 1916, William J Locke wrote a beautifully haunting short story about two sisters, 45 and 48-years-old, who find a young man washed up on the shore near their cottage. Ursula and Janet nurse him back to life and, as his broken ankle heals, fall a little in love with him. Particularly the almost childlike Ursula.

When Charles Dance (yes, the actor) read this short story at the turn of the next century, he decided it was good fodder for a screenplay. And it was. The film he wrote and directed, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, is as cinematically enchanting as the original story.

He moved the context from pre-WWI to pre-WWII, as if 1936 would be less archaic to a modern audience than 1916. More disturbingly, though, he changed the ages of the spinster sisters. Now in their 70s, Ursula’s growing feelings for the young man are a little harder to fathom.

The story would have been as sweetly poignant if the boy had elicited maternal feelings in the childless woman, instead of the romantic feelings of the original.

Finally, Shaun McKenna adapted the screenplay (not the original story) to the stage. His play is faithful to the film, and credit must go to the design team — Anna Gardiner (designer), Nicholas Higgins (lighting designer), Daryl Wallis (sound designer) — for seamlessly creating the world of the movie in front of our eyes.

Penny Cook and Sharon Flanagan are well cast as Janet and Ursula. Benjamin Hoetjes as Andrea, the young man, is easy to fall a little in love with. His boyish exuberance and charm lights up the stage.

Gael Ballantyne gives a great performance as Dorcas, the ladies’ housekeeper. She’s big, she’s bold, she’s loud, and she takes no guff from her employers. But she obviously loves them. Ballantyne had the audience laughing out loud at nearly every utterance.

The great thing about the Ensemble Theatre is that you know you’re in safe hands. These are true professionals who are talented and focused, who hit their marks and know their lines. They know how to work together, both onstage and offstage, to envelop us in the story they are telling.

Credit, too, to director Nicole Buffoni for guiding this ensemble.

NOTE: To read Toni Carroll's blog, visit tonicarroll.wordpress.com

Benjamin Hoetjes.

Sharon Flanagan and Penny Cook.

Lisa Gormley.

Benjamin Hoetjes. Penny Cook and Daniel Mitchell.