Criterion Theatre, London W1
Opened 7 June, 2005

Alison Pargeter is a tremendous actor, especially when playing characters who are not quite on top of things. Successions of complex emotions flit across her mobile features with the speed of thought, whilst she keeps her voice for the most part reined in, so that it's those expressions that signal the real inner drama. For much of the first act, her performance is the only thing worth watching in Gregory Murphy's play. After the interval, when she is called upon to do little more than be fraught, not even her skills can salvage it.

We've been here before: last autumn, Peter Whelan offered a Pre-Raphaelite love-triangle play, The Earthly Paradise, involving Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the William Morrises; here, it's John Everett Millais and the John Ruskins. Murphy is not as thoughtful as Whelan, nor as adroit a dramatist: where Morris's speeches straight to the audience in the earlier play seemed flawed but candid, the forty-years-on framing scenes in The Countess are merely clunky.

The plot: in 1853, Millais spent a summer with the Ruskins in the Scottish highlands, painting a portrait of John and falling in love with his somewhat younger wife Effie (in Millais's jocular epithet, "the Countess"), who is shown here as increasingly frustrated by her husband's coldness and repression; the following spring, Millais and Effie eloped, and Effie applied for an annulment of her marriage. (The well-known though possibly apocryphal tale is that the great aesthete Ruskin, familiar with the female body only through art, was so horrified on his wedding night to see pubic hair on Effie that he never consummated the marriage.)

In effect, this is a standard triangular story with several cumbersome attempts to spice it up: firstly, by involving historical figures, which in turn allows for weighty references to and extracts from Ruskin's lectures; secondly, by using the period setting to include a character, Effie's confidante Lady Eastlake (Linda Thorson), who not only champions a woman's right to autonomy but does so in a polished, sardonic manner probably intended to be Wildean; thirdly and I suspect this is partly a function of Murphy's American nationality by overplaying the buttoned-up English reactionism of Ruskin (Nick Moran, cast radically against type) and his parents (Gerald Harper and Jean Boht) to the point where they all seem pathological cases.

Ludovica Villar-Hauser, who directed the play's New York première in 1999, does a reasonable job, but I'm puzzled why she should be so committed to such an undistinguished play.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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