By Arthur Wing Pinero, with ornamentation by Patrick Marber
Directed by Joe Wright
Venue: Donmar Warehouse
Date: Thursday 28th March 2013
This was a real eye-opener. A previous touring production we’d seen had been rather bland and we remembered very little of it. Today’s performance was anything but bland, and the memories will keep us chuckling a good while yet. It’s not clear from the play text how much Patrick Marber has added, nor which bits are his, and since I don’t know the play that well I can’t be sure how much his work affected our experience. It would be interesting to see another version sometime to compare them, but that may not happen anytime soon. This version is definitely affectionate towards the original, and well worth seeing.
We were on regular Donmar seating again, thank goodness, and apart from one character squeezing himself onto the front row for a short while during the rehearsal scene, the actors were where actors are meant to be and the audience ditto. The backdrop to the set showed a black and white view down to St Pauls on the left and a large version of a theatrical playbill on the right. In the middle of the stage stood a theatrical hamper, there was a table back left and some chairs, with a sofa at the front on the left. A black cat of the stuffed persuasion sat on the sofa looking cute. For the first scene, a panel dropped down showing rose-patterned wallpaper above and something nondescript underneath a dado rail, and the word ‘farewell’ was hung across the lower section.
Mrs Mossop emerged from the basket and staggered around for a bit, causing some laughter, and after regaining her composure she began to sort the room out for Rose Trelawney’s farewell party. She shoved the hamper out of the way on her own, but the table was too much for her. Just then Mr Ablett arrived, the local greengrocer who was helping Mrs Mossop with the party. The two of them soon had the table in the middle of the room, and while Ablett carried on with the preparations, they gossiped away about the characters we were about to meet, very helpful for us. As they chatted, Mrs Mossop sat for a while on the sofa and stroked the cat. When she got up, she placed the cat on the ground and tried to shoo it under the sofa. Naturally the cat failed to oblige, so with a deft shove from her foot she nudged it in the right direction; I enjoyed that bit very much.
Then we met the various characters, most of whom were nicely over the top. Tom Wrench, the aspiring writer, was more subdued, though he did turn on the charm when he wanted Mrs Mossop to trim the cuffs of his shirt. Along with the Wells actors, the party included Imogen Parrott, a former actress in the troupe now with the Olympic, and Arthur Gower, Rose’s fiancé and the reason for her departure from the stage. The party was good fun, especially when Mrs Telfer received the prompt to tell Arthur to sit down as he’d “finished long ago”.
The first act showed us the rumbustious and uncertain life of an actor in the mid-nineteenth century while the second showed us the stiff formality of respectable households and how stifling this could be to a young woman used to a much freer life where she could make her own choices. The set was changed to a large portrait hanging behind a sofa on the right, the table and chairs were moved to the left hand side, and there was a bench back left. The overall impression was of drab upper-class respectability.
The stiffness of the Gower family was exaggerated to Dickensian proportions and caused a lot of the humour, as well as setting up the culture clash nicely. Ron Cook was excellent as Sir William Gower, the Vice Chancellor and Arthur’s grandfather, while Maggie Steed was absolutely superb as his nervy nit-picking sister Trafalgar who was wheeled around in an invalid chair. Shortly after criticising her grand-niece for speaking out of turn over a game of cards, she let out an extended virtuoso shriek which suggested that all the fiends in Hell had suddenly materialised in their drawing-room. With everyone else poised to rush to her aid, her accusation “Misdeal! Misdeal!” was hilariously funny. A late night visit by Rose’s actor friends, on the occasion of the marriage of two of them (to each other) finally broke the camel’s back, and Rose left the Gowers’ house immediately to return to her old life.
Sadly, her old life didn’t want her back. In her bedroom at their lodgings, we learned what had happened to Rose in the few months since she left the Gowers’ house. With her old skills deserting her, Rose had just been released from her contract. Meanwhile Mr Wrench’s new style of playwriting found a convenient partner in Imogen Parrott, who had hired a theatre using money from an admirer and wanted to take this opportunity to produce Tom’s latest play. On a visit to Rose, Sir William was reminded of his youthful passion for the theatre through Rose’s possession of several props once used by Kean himself and, keen to make some amends to her, offered to supply the rest of the money Imogen and Tom needed to put on their first play with its starring role for Rose. So apart from the mysterious absence of young Arthur Gower, everything seemed to be working out just fine.
The final Act was set in the theatre itself, backstage and on stage during their first rehearsal. The theatre manager O’Dwyer was a strong presence, much too strong at times in fact. He it was who sat amongst us for a brief spell, sulking because his consummate directing skills were being rejected, thank God. The naturalness of performance which Imogen and Tom wanted to achieve was completely unnatural to some of these actors, and there was a lot of fun in seeing the way they tried to adapt to the new style. Tom Wrench, directing for the first time, was reasonably patient with them, and when the new male lead turned up (young Arthur of course) there was plenty of realism in the passion between Rose and him – ah (sniff).
We had seen glimpses of Arthur in his early acting career as he learned the ropes down in Bristol, so we’d been primed to expect him, but it was still a moving moment. Sir William had turned up unexpectedly to watch the rehearsal, and wasn’t best pleased that his grandson had taken up this vagabond profession. There was still the possibility that things might work out, as Arthur was allowed to visit the house to see his great-aunt Trafalgar and Sir William agreed to let the production proceed, so the overall feeling at the end was a happy one.
There were some other lovely moments of humour which kept us highly entertained. During the third Act, Mr Gadd, husband of Avonia Bunn and player of both Romeo and Orlando, returned to the lodgings with the shocking news that he had been offered a part in…. pantomime! And a small part at that! (The Demon Of Discontent.) His outrage was funny enough, but with financial hardship looming, Avonia discreetly suggested that something might be made of the part after all, and his reconsideration of the role was even funnier – an excellent performance by Daniel Mays.
Later on, just before the rehearsal, Mr Telfer, previously the head of the Wells troupe, reported to his wife that he had been given a small part in Tom’s new play, as “an old, stagey, out-of-date actor”. There was a long pause, and I wondered if Maggie Steed had forgotten her line, but when she asked her husband if he thought he could come near it, we rocked with laughter. I couldn’t make up my mind whether she was being tactful or simply didn’t understand the implied insult and was being matter-of-fact, but either way it was very funny. With Ron Cook playing both Mrs Mossop and Sir William there was a lovely moment when that lady informed Rose that Sir William was downstairs and wanted to see her. When Rose asked her to show him up, the uncertainty on Mrs Mossop’s face was a joy to watch – how could she play two parts at one time?
All the performances were absolutely top-notch. I couldn’t always make out Avonia’s dialogue – I’ve had the same problem with that actress before – but everyone else was pretty clear. I didn’t find Augustus Colpoys’ little tricks funny, but I think that was meant to happen in this production and is no reflection on Fergal McElherron. With several of the cast doubling or even trebling their parts, there was plenty of scope to show what they could do, and there was a great ensemble feel to the production. The audience were very appreciative at the end, and I’m glad to say that the cast looked like they were enjoying themselves too.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me