Finborough Theatre, London SW10
Opened 3 February, 2011

The reviewers’ cliché “Neglected plays are usually neglected for a good reason” carries the implicit qualifier “…except when the Finborough stages them.” The more obscure revivals presented by this little studio theatre are almost always worthwhile, often impressive and sometimes revelatory. With Emlyn Williams’ 1950 drama, here receiving its first-ever revival, we are well into revelation. Williams’ treatment of his material would be remarkable even today; that this was written 60 years ago, and passed entirely uncensored by the Lord Chamberlain’s office of the time, is almost unbelievable.
Will Trenting is an admired writer who has just been given a knighthood in the New Year’s honours list (hence the title). He writes of the seamier side of life, and periodically – with his wife’s full knowledge and acceptance – goes off to live it in a bedsit above a pub in Rotherhithe. However, at his last party there (the word “orgy” is used once or twice), the twentysomething woman with whom he coupled turns out instead to have been somethingteen. Her father veers between extortion and prosecution; Trenting, his family and friends in various ways face the fact that choices come with consequences and freedom entails responsibility. That last clause sounds rather moralising, but the play is quite uncensorious: it neither damns Trenting or others, nor condones or even excuses their conduct, simply observes where harm is and is not done, and the ramifications when it is. We are now used to alternately sensationalistic and affectedly blasé treatment of such matters; to see them given such a direct, unmodulated view is a little breathtaking.
Blanche McIntyre’s production matches the play in quality and approach. She presents it close-up to us: James Cotterill’s design of a townhouse library seats some of the audience around its walls as well as end-on. The cast are uniformly splendid. Aden Gillett has a fluidity of speech and emotion perfectly suited to a studio portrayal of Trenting, and Saskia Wickham shows us the wife’s heart beneath the social surface. Patrick Brennan journeys from priggishness to self-conscious support as Trenting’s publisher, and as the sanctimonious smuthound Daker, Graham Seed, his character recently and notoriously killed off in BBC Radio’s The Archers, makes one want to throw him off a roof all over again. With a fraction of the budget and playing space, this is, I think, the production that the National Theatre’s revival last year of Rattigan’s After The Dance wanted to be, and perhaps in a way the play it wanted to be as well.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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