Review: Waste, Almeida Theatre

Waste, a play by Harley Granville Barker, is another one of those plays that was banned when first written, in this case in 1907. Directed by actor Samuel West at the Almeida theatre, this version uses the revised 1926 text to great effect with as strong an ensemble you will find in London this autumn.

The story follows Henry Trebell an independent MP with a lifelong dream of wanting to disestablish the Church of England and build colleges on the land and has formed part of a Tory push to get the bill passed as law with their anticipated arrival in government. However, his personal life is in disarray as a casual affair with a married woman who ends up pregnant comes to light and threatens to ruin everything that he holds dear.

The way in which the hypocrisy of the political classes is exposed means that much of this play, although set in the 20s, rings true today. The politicking and skullduggery that goes on as the politicians try to manage the fallout from the scandal and turn it as much their advantage as possible is fascinating and there’s a pleasure to be gained from eavesdropping on such a conversation that would never normally come to light. But the play also deals with private lives and the harrowing truths that hold Trebell and his spinster in their hollow emotional shells

As one has come to expect from the Almeida, the cast is sensational right down the list. Will Keen’s tragic Trebell conveys the real sense of ‘waste’ in a life that has consistently placed duty over emotion with a fiercely internalised performance; Phoebe Nicholl is sensational as the constantly forgiving yet equally emotionally repressed sister; Nancy Carroll’s performance as the discarded lover is stunning but frequently difficult to watch with the rawness of the emotion on display and Hugh Ross, Richard Cordery and Peter Eyre all provide wonderfully odious variations on a theme of smarmy politicians.

Yet despite how well-acted it was, it was hard to define how I actually felt about it for a long time. It is one of those occasions where I think I admired it more than loved it as it did prove hard-going. Clearly it is emotionally punishing, but I did find it physically tough as I just wanted it to get on with it at times. This was possibly because I wasn’t feeling 100% but I did feel that Granville Barker tries to cover too much in here and Sam West’s directing could have dealt with it: there were moments that could have been cut, dialogue tightened up and the same result achieved. That said it is very good, if a little bum-numbing and be prepared to work hard!

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