FringeReview UK 2016
In a season of books-turned-plays, some theatre equivalent of juke-box musicals work surprisingly well. Simon Reade’s adaptation of A Room With a View – a Theatre Royal Bath production directed by Adrian Noble, starring Felicity Kendall with a dazzling set by Paul Wills – suggests the enchantment of the familiar.
In a season of books-turned-plays, Simon Reade’s adaptation of A Room With a View – a Theatre Royal Bath production directed by Adrian Noble, starring Felicity Kendall with a dazzling set by Paul Wills – certainly suggests the enchantment of the familiar. Commercial imperatives aside, it’s the theatre equivalent of juke-box musicals: some work surprisingly well.
Noble, Wills and the cast have thrown everything at a storyline which although fluid and capable of the dissolves certainly visited on it, throws up the challenge of other novel-plays. The same Theatre Royal Bath source provided the recent Brideshead Revisited. Like that play it’s a film-book, popular in part because of a screen adaptation working like a palimpsest on the original text. The danger’s not simply the inherent untheatricality of many such adaptations; but tinged with close-up torpors the theatre’s hard-put to recreate screen magic or substitute a theatrical one.
It starts dazzlingly, with a wonderful design promise that never lets up. Slatted Italian screens give way to a set where another slatted screen lurks behind gimleted with light slit through intense Italian sunlight, onto a dinner table sumptuously suggesting more than the fare poor-relation Charlotte Bartlett (Felicity Kendall) feels has been doled out to her or her ward, relative Lucy Honeychurch (Lauren Coe) – they’ve not been given the promised rooms with views either.
That’s nothing though to the table manners of the rude mechanical socialist Emersons, well-meaning Jeff Rawle and his son George (Tom Morley) who works for the railways. They offer gallantly to swap, and so begin the hesitations, modesty-hierarchies tittered by Kendall’s Charlotte as she couldn’t possibly – all brokered by well-meaning if bumptious Mr Beebe.
Lucy however young is an adventurer, and boy’s already met girl. The path of true romance however is trammelled by a writer of them, Joanne Pearce’s energetic sly Eleanor Lavish, making much of the real Italy (something Forster again makes much of in A Passage to India) but who colonizes and patronizes both British (who should sit exams) and natives. She’s not wholly unsympathetic – essentially a gay suffragette with striding independence if heedless of others, magnificently suited. Pearce suggests her essentially parasitic character, culminating in a supreme fictive act of treachery, comically telling the truth of an erotic awakening since Lavish has no transformative imagination. Pearce also gives her the energy perhaps Forster begrudges her.
The opening set scenes which open up to display a series of projected backdrops are fluidly, sometimes breathtakingly done. The interior of a church throwing warm gules of coloured light for instance. The latter half of the first act drags a little because the storyline does. Noble energizes, spectacular moments abound: the trip to countryside where the whole party don umbrellas is a fantastical dance. Characters stay in situ where scenery changes on occasion, people stride out from hundreds of miles off to read out their letters; all’s active but this sometimes isn’t quite enough.
When Mr Emerson protests at the separation of the young Italian horse-cabby’s bringing his girlfriend along, there’s a hanging silence. This should have resonated with a snap. The end of the first half’s a tad limp, Lucy aspiring to the audience. Another decision is quite brilliant and faintly baffling. Two squared-up Italians kiss then one staggers from a fatal wound. A Mafioso kiss in the middle of an altercation, perhaps premature for 1907, perhaps a hommage to what Forster thought: Lucy sees it as a kind of kiss.
In the far tighter second half back in Surrey two points nag: one character, the wonderfully clockwork-like Cecil Vyse unsuitable suitor to Lucy is dismissed and thanks her for a revelation of his character, but at the end smiles. Is he sincere as the novel suggests or was this a game? Charlie Anson’s superbly taut and whirring as the pranked-up rich intellectual who’d collect Lucy like a Dresden figurine but has no notion of what to with her as a distinctly awoken young woman.
It’s Vye who inadvertently brings the Emerson as lodgers near the Honeychurch family in a Hardyesque clap of fate, and unleashes one might say full nature onto the stage.
Coe’s ardent yet contained reading flashes out at Kendall, Pearce, Anson (particularly) and finally flames out in her conflicted feelings at Morley’s George who has ‘insulted’ her again with another kiss (brought on by the unsuspecting Lucy reading out Miss Lavish’s novel). Morley here brings out the full force of George, a character a little shrouded by the story as a sulky nihilist enflamed by Lucy then moping back when admonished.
The full force however is Morley naked alongside Jack Loxton’s Lucy’s brother Freddy. They’ve gone for a skinny river romp and drag in Mr Beebe (Simon Jones shining throughout never shines so much as when clutching himself buffed up) and naturally run straight into Lucy et al. This of course brought the house down explosively and should be advertised as a special feature.
There’s fine work from Abigail McKern as the Signorina and Mrs Honeychurch, and a nasty cameo by David Killick as the Reverend Eager, an admonishing monster of reactionary rectitude, bent after several altercations with his demons. Rawle’s tour-de-force, engineered by surprise, brings out the free-thinking working-class socialist and prophet of instinct: a heterosexual Edward Carpenter but a man of heart. Rawle’s almost-drawl is engaging, and finds its truth.
Kendall’s detail here of course delights. She misses perhaps an ounce of the pathos of Charlotte, who didn’t dare thirty years ago what Lucy she fears might dare here. But her attention to the victim-hierarchical refusal to take more than her share of cab fare change, and thus draw attention to her state and elicit sympathy, is what we’d expect from such a paragon of pause and stare, as well as impeccable timing.
This is about as good as you could reasonably hope for, given the material. Perhaps some pace in the first half needs attending to, but the latter half is a delight, and should send people back to the theatre for different fare, and to the book.