FringeReview UK 2019
Derek Watts directs this 1950 play after two recent West End revivals. With Michael Folkard’s supremely solid set – constructed by Keith Gilbert Don Plimmer and Trevor Morgan -is augmented with lighting and sound also by Morgan: Eric Coates’ Knightsbridge March lends a swaggering establishment feel. In-period costumes by Gerry Cortese, and make-up by Charlotte Carrig.
‘We all have one thing we’re ashamed of. Even the judge… his secret may be the nastiest of the lot. Only you have committed the sin of being found out.’ Thus the Nobel-prize winning hero’s publisher to the laureate, now being knighted.
Being bisexual or gay wasn’t easy in the renewed homophobia of postwar Britain. Emlyn Williams sailed close to his own life here, with his complicit wife, and merely heterosexualised the debauchery. However, under-age sex was enough to alert the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Williams showed real bravery.
Here Williams proposes that double life as a creative necessity. It’s assumed writer Will Trenting comes at least as close as Dickens to his subjects, so empathic is he with the sexual underside. Empathy, maybe; but he’s his own subject too, one debauchee among equals.
One of LLT’s and director Derek Watts’ great resources has been the flair of unearthing neglected works. Williams has been curiously neglected despite the rise of his contemporaries in the well-made play tradition: J. B. Priestly (last season) and Rattigan (several previous).
Accolade from 1950, revived by Blanche McIntyre at the Finborough in 2011 and St James (now The Other Place) in 2014 prompted reappraisal, notably by Michael Billington, alert to Williams’ other plays. This one as Watts suggests might be his most adult, with adult themes and characters Williams hinted at before, notably in his 1934 thriller Night Must Fall. And it grips – just as well, since even with slight trimming it runs with an interval for two hours forty-five. It’s one of the longest plays outside Shakespeare ever produced here.
Michael Folkard’s supremely solid set is augmented straight off with lighting and sound by Trevor Morgan: Eric Coates’ Knightsbridge March lends a swaggering establishment feel, like mahogany newly-waxed. In-period costumes by Gerry Cortese flourish discreetly in ration-card austerity, with make-up by Charlotte Carrig.
The set’s constructed by Keith Gilbert, Don Plimmer and Morgan; and we seem on solid ground: the author’s study, book-lined in white bookcases with a door upstage centre giving on to a visible staircase, a crucial French window stage right (where a pane’s shattered by a stone), and off upstage left of the door a kind of pantry in pale green. Downstage is a writing desk and in the middle a deep fuchsia pink sofa, raffish for the period.
But then Philip Robinson’s Will Trenting is a bit raffish himself, even if his wife Rone (Chloe Franks) is simply tolerant. Shuttling between them and everyone else is the ex-pub worker Albert, David Hallett’s curiously reclaimed character.
With a stately panic Robinson’s Trenting rushes on looking for the papers that proclaim to the world he’s to be knighted. He’d kept it from his wife who’d gossip, though not Albert. It’s the only secret he does deliberately keep from her though, as we discover.
Michael Bulman’s supremely assured Thane Lampeter, ex-lawyer and Trenting’s publisher, arrives already apprised of the news. Bulman’s granitic delivery too, rich with the baritone of his musical career and perfectly timed, anchors all circumstance around him and there’s a hell of a lot of it.
Rebecca Warnett’s Marian Tillyard, a society friend swells the scene with neat sallies in cut-glass tattle, and then unexpected ones, Tim Freeman’s and Sandy Truman’s Harold and Phyllis: they’re from a pub Trenting habituates. Known as Bill he gives parties – orgies in fact.
Rone takes to the couple warmly. Franks shrewdly avoids the mumsy or Fawlty Towers Connie approaches, detailing adroit handling born of a rare refusal to judge by appearance. And she’s formidable elsewhere.
Freeman and Truman provide some of the best entertainment in the play. More importantly, they’re superb singly and as a double-act. As realized here they’re good sorts even if they do hire themselves out for sex and seem to enjoy doing it; and they’ve a nice daughter Brenda. Perhaps, they later think, they’ll pack it in. Later too Phyllis shocks the a-literate Harold who’s terrified she’ll show herself up to the Trentings’ son Ian (the excellent, winning Logan Brewer). Her favourite Dickens? The Old Curiosity Shop and she quotes reams of Little Nell. She was a child actor and has sound opinions of how Dickens might have ended his work. Ian’s entranced with both of them. It’s a deliciously adroit social moment.
Williams’ refusal to condemn them, indeed make them if accidentally calamitous, fully supportive, appreciative friends, strikes a blow in 1950. In the same year, Noel Coward’s Relative Values scraped the nadir of his snobbery, in the ‘exposure’ of a Hollywood star about to marry a baronet: she’s the British sister of the housekeeper who cries ‘hypocrite’ and saves the bloodline. The horror.
They’re not the only visitors from that part of the world however. First Will or Bill and Phyllis and Harold, narrowly escape a police raid after a tip-off when Rone and Thane wait up all night.
That’s just a foretaste though. Alan Lade’s Daker has some incriminating photographs; indeed his daughter was at the party and isn’t the age Harold thought when he introduced her to Bill, and everyone else. At this point we’re a year on from Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair a celebrated 1949 court thriller where a fifteen-year-old girl alleges a spinster kidnapped her; when the reality is she’s trying to cover up an affair with a married man. This daughter’s not innocent either, but there’s the law. Williams seems to have taken note.
Bulman, Freeman, and Truman are uniformly first-rate. They give sovereign performances and convince us. Brewer belongs in their company for giving a pin-drop performance; his scurrying exits as well as speeches are perfectly timed. Warnett too is wholly successful in having to modulate from conventional cheerleader to a friend in need, negotiating some sexual mores closer to home than she feels reasonable, in her own life. Most of this she registers beautifully. Hallett moves and speaks with assurance and discreet long-suffering comedy: only the timbre of his voice seems a little pinched. This goes for Franks too, whose delivery is deliberately laboured, making a point it’s difficult to catch. Again strangely, there’s a hint of constriction in the voice. Everything else as we’ve seen she manages with aplomb and some empathy.
Lade’s actual performance is a tour-de-force or farce of stage villainy, energetic, gloriously Brylcreamed into a black-scalped horror. Billington noted a similar egging in the 2014 revival so there’s possibly some kink in Williams’ script that doesn’t allow Daker’s character the truth he utters; and trips everyone. There’s a hint of the psychopath from Night Must Fall, but more, a disappointed writer who twice ‘remembers’ Cambridge days. Whatever, Daker possesses aspirations and sensibility; Trenting’s another who’s disdained him in the past. Lade plays him as a greasy menacing spiv, but a failed writer from Cambridge (or not) thinks in a different register. Working-class people who get to Cambridge don’t sound off like him; as a working-class boy who got to Oxford Williams would know too. Plain proud accents have prevailed from the twenties on. The swagger’s wrong; even journalism doesn’t quite do that. Daker’s chilling decisions need more chilling exploration; the rewards are huge.
Most revivals play Trenting at 45, Williams’ age when he took the lead. Billington rightly noted this isn’t credible for a Nobel Laureateship though Kipling bucked the trend at 42. Robinson’s convincingly older, the right age for a knighthood too. He delivers everything cleanly and thoughtfully, managing from the start to create tension, though strictly speaking the flurry there is only for a newspaper. Raffish though is the keyword for Will or Bill, and an aged roué should peep out satyr-like from the briar. Robinson can suggest a harassed parson, not a hell-raising perv on occasion. Now he’s Jekyll and Hyde, but since we only see his Jekyll, we must seek hints of Hyde. Robinson’s finest moments come in his pomp and his despair, showing crumbling stature reaching out.
However all bets are off at the climactic scene where though some register of grief’s a little wide, the resolution’s hugely satisfying.
If the end’s a little sentimental, all actors bring it off superbly, though linking arms away from that baying French window and not before it might seem pat. What the cast do though is sustain a very word-heavy texture over a huge span without lapses or tripping. It grips from start to finish with not a dull moment, even when the pulse slackens momentarily. That’s a huge achievement more than worthy of accolades.