“Reserve your tears for the bedroom Madam, this is whist!”
With just a handful of films under his belt, Joe Wright has made quite the name for himself as a director of some theatrical flair – perhaps nodding to childhood time spent at the Little Angel Theatre that his parents founded – but it is only now that he has made his directorial debut in the theatre with Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar Warehouse. Whether by design or by accident, it marks the third notable recent outing for the otherwise neglected Victorian playwright after the Rose’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray and the National’s The Magistrate but it cleaves closer to the gently farcical nature of the latter than the melodrama of the former. The text here has been ornamented by Patrick Marber, though more learned writers than I will be able to tell you by how much.
The play focuses on Rose Trelawny, a star of the melodramas that filled the Victorian stage, who opts to give up her career in the theatre when she decides to marry her paramour, the aristocrat Arthur Gower. But when the social chasm between her and his family drives them apart, drastic measures on both sides are necessary to try and restore their relationship. But for a play about the theatre, it had little of the breathless joy and theatricality that I had assumed Wright would bring into play and not all of that can be ascribed to the fact that this was a preview.
There’s a real unevenness when it comes to the performances. Ron Cook has the most fun, doubling well as the irascible Sir William and kindly company manager Mrs Mossop, not least in a scene when the latter announces the arrival of the former at the door. Maggie Steed’s faded star Mrs Telfer brings a rare note of emotional dignity as she watches the new generation of actors pass her by but the production currently squanders this great gift as it does Peter Wight’s presence as her husband. As the younger actors learning the new style of acting, Aimeé Ffion Edwards achieves a nice level of wide-eyed goofiness but Daniel Mays goes embarrassingly way overboard with the hamminess.
And even with the romantic leads, there’s a strange underpowered quality. Amy Morgan manages a strong attempt at developing Trelawny beyond the paucity of the character as it exists on the page and as the run progresses, her performance will surely mature. But only time will tell if Joshua Silver has been fatally miscast as love interest Arthur or whether he just needs to grow significantly in self-assurance to make an impact on the stage. I wasn’t too sure whether Daniel Kaluuya’s playwright quite had the right confidence either. Perchance they’ll be fine by opening night…
But ultimately the muted mood of the production lies with Wright, whose focus on the artificiality of the world of the stage takes some getting used to and never really kicks out of the muted mood that it establishes. There’s a deal of folk song singing which exacerbates this pacing issue and so more often than not, the production was testing my patience. But though I may not have found it as charming and funny as it intended to be, many around me seemed to disagree so I imagine I will be in the minority.