By Arthur Wing Pinero
Directed by Stephen Unwin
Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston
Date: Thursday 25th October 2012
As Steve remarked, you wait years for a Pinero and then three come along at once! (The Magistrate at the National and Trelawney of the Wells at the Donmar are the other two – we’ve booked.) We saw this play thirty years ago at the National, with Felicity Kendal and Leigh Lawson playing the Tanquerays alongside a classy support cast. The story had faded; all I could remember at this distance was that Felicity Kendal was a troubled woman with a past, that I felt sympathetic towards her, and that we enjoyed the play. Not a lot to go on, but enough to make us keen to see this revival at long last.
The set had another picture frame straddling the stage, a slim one which didn’t intrude too much into the acting space. The opening scene was set in Aubrey Tanqueray’s rooms at the Albany, at the end of a meal with two of his friends; the dining table with appropriate debris was on the left of the stage with a cabinet behind it, a wide doorway screened with a curtain was centre back and a chair, sofa and fireplace were on the right hand side. For the rest of the play, the location was Highercoombe, Mr Tanqueray’s country house. The second act was in the breakfast room while the final acts took place in the drawing room. The breakfast room had the table on the right of the stage with a different sofa and chair on the left and no curtain over the doorway. The change took a little time, and Mrs Tanqueray had already turned up before it was complete. She waited, looking somewhat bored, while the servants completed their task, then sat down to wait for the start of the scene. During the interval the furniture was completely changed, with a circular seat over on the left, a sofa on the right with a piano behind it and various tables and cabinets. Everything was in period style, as were the costumes, and despite the sparseness of the design it worked well for this production. Not as sumptuous as the National, of course, but better for this space.
The plot was relatively simple, but there was some back story we had to be told during the first act. Mr Tanqueray was a widower with a daughter in a convent whi was shortly due to become a nun. The following day he was to marry again, and his wife had a past, which was why he hadn’t mentioned the impending nuptials earlier to his friends. There was a good deal of discussion as to the social consequences of marrying such a woman, both in terms of Tanqueray himself and in relation to Sir George Orreyed, who had himslef only just married another scarlet woman, much to his mother’s distress.
We learned a lot of this from the conversations between Tanqueray’s friends; Tanqueray obligingly took himself off to write some letters – the 19th century equivalent of sending a few texts. To avoid being disturbed, he went into the next room, so his friends could gossip freely, and what fun it was! Cayley Drummle, Tanqueray’s closest friend, stayed after the others had left to get more information about the bride-to-be, and this was followed by a visit from the lady herself, so by the end of the first act we were pretty well acquainted with the situation. The future Mrs Tanqueray had made her living by associating with a series of men, not actually married to them but adopting their names and being a charming hostess to all their friends. Aubrey was convinced that she’d been treated badly by each and every one of these men (the brutes!) but I wasn’t persuaded so easily. With Tanqueray’s young daughter Ellean (pronounced Ellie-Ann) returning home after receiving ghostly guidance from her deceased mother, there was very little likelihood of this second marriage ending happily, and so it proved. We’d both forgotten the dramatic conclusion to the play, but it was not unexpected given the circumstances.
The picture of Victorian marriage painted by Pinero was certainly unflattering, and possibly more accurate than not. Many of the social niceties of those times no longer apply, of course, so I had to be patient occasionally as characters went through agonies over some trivial difficulty which wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today. But there was plenty to enjoy as well, and we laughed often throughout the performance. I felt that this production was taking a deliberately lighter tone than the National’s, making it more of a melodrama. The emotions were more exaggerated, and while we felt kinder towards Paula during the second half, she wasn’t a sympathetic character this time with her temper tantrums and shallowness. (Felicity Kendal, just post-The Good Life, was an angel, of course, and entirely sympathetic – how dare these men think anything bad about her!)
Laura Michelle Kelly showed us Paula’s nervousness and waywardness along with some of her charm and intelligence, but I wasn’t always clear why Aubrey found her attractive. Her dignity started to show through in the later scenes, and there was a sense that but for misfortune she might have been both a decent human being and acceptable to Victorian society. James Wilby did reasonably well as Aubrey Tanqueray, but despite his ability as an actor he seemed to be rushing his lines so much that I missed many of them – very puzzling. Rona Morison was suitably priggish as Ellean, with a noticeable change when she arrived back from Paris, and Joseph Alessi gave perhaps the best performance as Cayley Drummle, Tanqueray’s confidante, gossip-monger and the life of the party. There were good supporting performances from the rest of the cast as well, and the production was nicely balanced.
It was good to see this again, and I hope we don’t have to wait so long for our third opportunity.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me