The title of Camera Obscura is doubly appropriate. It refers primarily to the darkened room in Boston in which resides Arthur Crew Inman: a reclusive hypochondriac, self-centred manipulator of all those around him, an obsessive diarist who placed newspaper ads for strangers to come and tell him their stories... and who, if they were young women, would manipulate them in an altogether less metaphorical way. But the location adds another layer of significance to that title: the Almeida Theatre's rehearsal room in Islington has been turned into a makeshift venue for 50 or so people. With the mix-and-match seating and the dingy, seldom-seen, hidden-away feel of the place, it almost feels at moments as if the play were site-specific.
All of which is to the good, for this is one of those evenings on which the thing that makes least impact is the play itself. Jonathan Miller's production is scrupulously low-key and perfectly attuned to the material. Peter Eyre in the central role is remarkable: as with his recent portrayal of Kenneth Tynan, Eyre has a knack for casually inhabiting all the little corners and quirks of a character, both charming and disagreeable. Inman's wife is almost a match for him both in dramatic terms and in Diana Hardcastle's performance. Even Inman himself, who left 115 volumes of diaries containing some 17 million words, acquires curiosity value as a literary/historical figure.
But Lorenzo DeStefano's play – an adaptation of the edited diaries (a mere 850,000 words) – too often turns this wealth of material into formula. DeStefano structures the piece around Inman's final few days (he shot himself in December 1963, aged 68), shoehorning into this brief period not just amorous and demanding encounters with a handful of girls but a rancorous bust-up with a vengeful valet, a threatened legal action for his sexual activities with his young visitors, the near-breakdown of his marriage after his wife reveals that for thirty-odd years she has been having an affair with his doctor, and to top it all, a visit from Inman's father's ghost. (And to tail it all, we also get a coda where Inman's widow meets his editor-to-be.) It ends up as one of those plays where, as the protagonist is about to die, vast chunks of his life flash before the audience's eyes.
The programme notes assure us that Inman as a diarist was candid and self-critical, but there is little in this version of his account to suggest that he had any idea of how unpleasant he really was: as the account of his flaming row with a black woman active in civil rights exemplifies, all the mortification here is either self-serving or wholly inadvertent. The production as a whole, being better than the play deserves, comes across as an accomplished but faintly bemusing exercise.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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