FringeReview UK 2023
In Miles Malleson’s play, full of probing discussions, there’s a refusal to tilt at solutions. You feel he’s lived along the line; his provisionality speaks with permanence. That’s what makes it so remarkable
Writer Miles Malleson, Directed by Jonathan Bank, Set Design Alex Marker, and Costume Designer by Annett Black, Lighting Design William Reynolds, Sound Designer Jane Shaw, Casting Director Abby Galvin, Hair and Make Up Debbie Storey, Intimacy Co-ordinator Tigger Blaize
Production Manager Lucy Mewis-McKerrow, Stage Manager Amos Clarke,
ASM Chloe Bright, Production Carpenter Tom Baum, Assistant Production Carpenter Toy Molyneux, Production Technician Tom McCreadie,
PR David Burns, Production & Rehearsal Photographer Steve Gregson, Programme Designer Ciaran Walsh for Ciwa Design.
Till July 1st
Open marriage, a Canon morally outflanked? Quite why a renowned actor/playwright’s work should lie unperformed 90 years, isn’t entirely puzzling; even though he was mounting his own work and others (Bernard Shaw, Galsworthy, Laurence Housman) at the Arts Guild. It wouldn’t be the first time Miles Malleson fell foul of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Pity it buried a near-masterpiece, one that speaks with startling relevance through sparkling laughter – to something nearer despair.
Malleson’s 1933 Yours Unfaithfully here receives its UK premiere, directed by Jonathan Bank at Jermyn Street Theatre till July 1st. Bank’s Mint Theater Company gave the world premiere in New York, in 2017, followed by another Malleson play, Conflict, from 1925.
Malleson, famed actor and screenwriter (First of the Few) with his comically receding chin, was Dr Chasuble in the 1952 Importance, and the best Polonius Gielgud ever worked with.
Stephen Meredith (Guy Lewis) is fulminating even before lights-up, at his father Canon Gordon (Tony Timberlake), whose traditional views are diametrically opposed to his, and it seems his wife of eight years. Anne Meredith (Laura Doddington) is concerned, as she confides to their phlegmatic-seeming friend Dr Alan Kirby (Dominic Marsh), that Stephen’s flat-line happiness with her undermines his creativity.
Enter their friend Diana Streatfield (Keisha Atwell) whose aviator husband was killed a year ago, in need of consolation. Anne almost connives at Diana’s affair with Stephen, later slides easily into a consolatory, not sexual embrace with Alan, the second and more serious of her ex-lovers, with Stephen’s full acceptance: experienced when they married he felt Anne needed to sow oats too. All four are thoroughly modern old friends. But can Anne remain complacent? Can what she believes, helming her progressive school, conflict with what she feels, despite herself?
Atwell gives a powerfully conflicted performance of wonder and invitation, unfrozen from grief. In one meeting she contrives with Anne, she seeks absolution.
It’s no diametric opposition between Canon and younger generation. When Timberlake’s excellent Canon – irritatingly still a greater cricketer than his son – gets wind through nosey parishioners – he thunders down, refusing to more than nod to Diana, fulminates to Stephen, honey and rue in his voice. Malleson gives Canon Gordon his head:
“There is something in marriage beyond the ordinary instinctive desire for companionship, beyond friendship, beyond common interests, even beyond children; but which grows out of all these things … a deep spiritual union…only achieved by life-long faithfulness…”
Malleson, who lived an open marriage, leaves this an open question. Anne’s response alone with the Canon comes as a surprise. The point is the union’s durability. Malleson’s own voice is later heard in Alan Kirby, who becomes the other moral lodestar.
It’s pointedly autobiographical. Malleson, a socialist whose aristocratic wife actor/author Constance Malleson pursued an open affair with Bertrand Russell, only divorced her amicably so he could marry his second wife, a doctor pursuing sexual health and abortion rights. In fact Russell rejected Constance earlier because she didn’t want children, but remained lifelong friends.
The third act – set in the Merediths’ London flat – dispenses with the Canon and Diana. Anne’s been starting an affair with a science lecturer as Stephen and Diana holiday in Paris, is visited by Alan. Unlike Stephen, Anne finds jealousy an adjunct of love: something she loathes but can’t fight. Malleson’s prone to duetting: every combination save the Canon and Diana is tried. When Anne leaves for her assignation Stephen arrives, en route.
One’s reminded of those Terence Rattigan characters seemingly peripheral, even outcast, revealed as a moral centre. John Reid in Rattigan’s 1939 After the Dance, trying to console Joan the wife who’s apparently happily let her husband be pursued by a serious young woman; and supremely Dr Miller in The Deep Blue Sea. You feel the young Rattigan knew something of Yours Unfaithfully.
Alan, whose stature rises as his eloquence unveils, is powerful in Marsh’s hands. He tells Stephen – perhaps ruefully, now he’s married to another doctor – most couples are 30% compatible, whereas Anne and he are more like 80%; it’s always the conflicted part that kills. It’s probing, careful speech, steeped in pre-war psychology (Alans’ branch). The end, in Anne’s words, is defiantly provisional: “Endings aren’t happy things, anyhow! We’re right in the middle.”
Alex Marker’s smart sets reproduce an immaculate country drawing room with a faux-Cezanne over the mantlepiece, smart sofas, seats, doors, accoutrements of douceur de vivre. The London flat is almost garishly smart, a luxurious bed planted in the middle, small stove centre-right; clever use is made of offstage taps filling a water jug.
Annett Black’s costumes are suavely understated, except the Canon’s insistence on wearing his old Cambridge Blue sweater. William Reynolds’ lighting introduces stark moments in the flat, softer for the country and a neat trick of opening a beat late at curtain-up, heightening Stephen’s rhodomontade as literally in the dark. Jane Shaw’s sound reproduces period songs including one with the signature title.
Lewis conveys the right mix of callowness and idealism, intelligent in many things save the uncomfortable, with a saving capacity to comprehend and grow. This production underscores Malleson’s witty charactering of father and son having far more in common than either would care to admit; though clear to others, especially in using identical sentences attacking each other.
Doddington’s Anne is so serene, so lively and reassuring, her breaking-down at one or two points, her response to the Canon, are revelatory. Hers is the great performance of the evening. It’s this that reminds one of Rattigan’s Joan only six years later in After the Dance, memorably played by Nancy Carroll in the 2010 NT production.
In Malleson’s play, full of probing discussions, there’s a refusal to tilt at solutions. You feel he’s lived along the line; his provisionality speaks with permanence. His questions over polyandry, open relationships and their limits are worth heeding now more than ever. That’s what makes it so remarkable.