Excerpt from Parables in Farce by John Russell Taylor
Encore, May/June, 1962, pp. 36-38
...Big Soft Nellie carries Livings’s characteristic disregard of normal plotting much farther than Stop It, Whoever You Are; indeed, in it there is virtually no plot whatever, only a series of incidents in the back room of an electrical appliances shop. The ‘big soft Nellie’ is Stanley, a mother’s boy who is the butt of the staff (with the exception of the dreamy Benny, who is so stupid he hardly counts) and resents it. During the course of the first act Benny and then Stanley practice judo, a police sergeant is called in by Stanley’s mother for no good reason, and the other members of the staff persuade Stanley to tell a story while they laugh at him. He decides to do something to make them take notice, and so carries off the vast cabinet of the boss’s television set and then (after a long and farcical investigation of its disappearance at the beginning of the second act) returns to give himself up and proclaim himself the thief, hoping optimistically for five years’ imprisonment (for all the world like the hero in The Rise and Fall of a Nignog, who ends, after his ludicrous attempt at prison-breaking has failed, contentedly asking how long a sentence he will get, secure in the knowledge that at last someone has had to take notice). Unfortunately his best efforts are all in vain: he is given a conditional discharge, but his workmates conspire to say nothing of this misfortune in front of him, treating him instead with the deference due to a real prisoner, ‘coming-out party’ and all, and so finally, even if he remains basically just as “soft”, he can at least stand on his own feet as a self-respecting man.
In this play, plot being reduced to the absolute minimum, we can study Livings’s individual techniques in their purest state. Basically, like so many of the new dramatists, he seeks just to show people together, interacting, existing. He carries his interest in this—at the expense of normal dramatic construction—far farther than most, however, and in this play comes perhaps closest to an otherwise very different dramatist, Ann Jellicoe. Like her, he writes in terms of a total stage action rather than simply in words; much of what his characters say is merely a gloss on what is happening, and often an apparently completely random exchange in a sequence of non sequiteurs makes sense only when we see the actors together and understand the relationship between them at that particular point. A conversation between the Sergeant and Marris, the owner of the shop, in the second act is an excellent example. The Sergeant is felicitating himself of a satisfactory conclusion, the culprit discovered and the charges dropped:
MARRIS: Do you ever get those anxieties coming on unexpectedly? No, I don’t suppose you do.
SERGEANT: Don’t you be surprised.
MARRIS: So we can expect you to grace the British Legion very shortly?
SERGEANT: Thank you. I think I’d better just talk to the staff to wind this business up. Don’t want to leave them with the idea that they’ve go away with everything.
He turns to the door where Benny and Stanley stand pale and resigned.
MARRIS: Yes, they gave me a bit of a start I’ll admit.
SERGEANT: They’d gone clean out of my mind. Why don’t they go and do something?
MARRIS: I don’t know. Perhaps they can’t think of anything suitable.
SERGEANT: Eerie, aren’t they? That’s how I imagine condemned men look, on the morning.
MARRIS: Funny how these anxieties come on unexpectedly, isn’t it?
On the page it means almost nothing, but when the actors in front of us speak the lines and at the same time we seem them together and understand what they are feeling, the shared tension, the sudden intuitive points of contact which lead Marris first to ask about the anxieties and then, out of the blue, to see when the sergeant is experiencing one, it all makes perfect sense. So, too, does the small parable behind the whole action of the play: that what the ignored want more than anything else is attention, and even a very little, not particularly deserved, will do to get things right.
[Webmistress's note: The excerpt given above is all this article has to say about Big Soft Nellie. To read Parables in Farce in its entirety, click here.]