Theatre Royal, Bath
Opened 13 / 14 July, 2009
**** / *** / ****

It is something of a surprise to see Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version presented with one of Chekhov’s comic shorts as a curtain-raiser. But both the Rattigan and Swansong are about practitioners at the end of undistinguished careers – a schoolmaster and an actor respectively – momentarily reconnecting with works that had first fired them up.. and in both cases Aeschylus’ Agamemnon figures largely. Peter Bowles gives a brace of assured central performances. He shows more relish in the role of Chekhov’s Svetlovidov than might have been expected, following his own well-publicised bout of line amnesia onstage a couple of years ago.
Whatever its thematic links, Swansong is little more than fluff (Chekhov claimed to have written it in an hour), but it lulls us into a false sense that similarly little will be at stake in the Rattigan piece. In this, Bowles astutely shows that protagonist Crocker-Harris is not entirely dead inside yet. Several moments in his performance can best, if bizarrely, be described as “desiccated twinkling”. James Musgrave is appealing as the tactlessly brash classics student who reawakens the “Crock”’s sense of his own human decency, and Candida Gubbins deepens from mimsy beginnings to a portrayal of smiling villainy as the contemptuous, adulterous Mrs Crocker-Harris.
The Browning Version, loosely inspired by Rattigan’s own time at Harrow School, comes almost from another world in both its old-fashioned craft and its sentiment, yet characteristically of the playwright it proves surprisingly effective (and affecting) still. Conversely, one of the other presentations in the first tranche of this year’s seventh Peter Hall Company season in Bath seems in many ways a satirical-political prophecy. Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart (1928) concerns British royalty taking political views in public, a monarch with a mistress, an abdication crisis and a massive knot of who-rules-Britain debate: crown, cabinet, media, Big Business or America? A mordant topicality accrues even to throwaway one-liners such as “I had rather be a dog than Prime Minister of a country in which the only thing the people can be serious about is football and refreshments” and “God help England if she had no Scots to think for her!”… both uttered by a self-regarding Scottish P.M., nudge-nudge. Shaw deliberately mixes matters up by giving his then-contemporary characters classical names to dissociate them from specific figures (as if that would have fooled anyone), and Hall and designer Christopher Woods underline this then-and-now ambiguity by deploying amid the formal palace décor a number of chrome-and-glass furnishings.
Charles Edwards is at once amiable and wily (he brought a similar combination to the West End’s four-handed adaptation of The 39 Steps) as King Magnus, offered an ultimatum by his Labour cabinet to stop leaking his views to the press or face the mass resignation of the government and an election fought on the constitutionality of the monarchy. One feels that Prince Charles has read this play and attempted a Magnus-like stratagem or two in his time, but without the same disarming air of insouciance. The cabinet themselves are muddled and bickering, from Penny Bunton’s glacial Powermistress General to Barry Stanton’s prolier-than-thou President of the Board of Trade, with James Laurenson’s Prime Minister relying on bluster and high dudgeon to keep them in check. Meanwhile, the King’s mistress is eager to take the place of his wife, and to top it all the United States want to perform a reverse-takeover of the British Empire by rejoining it.
As usual with Shaw, there are at least two major ideas too many jostling for space (and less space than usual, at that: barely two hours of playing time). However, the speechifying of his characters is not nearly so relentless as it often is. Indeed, perhaps the highlight of the play is the verbal fencing between Edwards and Janie Dee as his mistress, a typical Shavian intellectual duel but invested by the actors with playfulness and affection. Dee, who appears only in this one scene in the entire season, nevertheless shines as delightfully as ever: when she remarks, “I am one of Nature's queens, and they know it,” an entire audience nods inwardly.
David Storey’s Home is often considered to be an only slightly covert state-of-the-nation play, in which two elderly patrician gentlemen meet up with a couple of working-class women in the grounds of an industrial-scale mental institution. Class differences in personal and social contexts, and a sympathy for individual lacks and yearnings, have all been discerned in Storey’s play, but not, alas, by me. I can see little of either social or emotional depth in it. Stephen Unwin directs a prime cast: David Calder, Lesley Joseph, Nichola McAuliffe and Stephen Moore are all on form, give or take a too-hefty Cockney accent. But it is one more of the surprises offered by this batch of plays that Home turns out to be the most innocuous of the lot.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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