“You won’t believe what a bad little sweetheart she could be”
Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, Graham Greene’s first play The Living Room hasn’t been revived in the UK since opening in 1953 so Primavera’s revival for the Jermyn Street Theatre offers a rare chance to experience Greene the playwright. After the death of her mother, 20 year old Rose Pemberton is taken to live with her deeply Catholic elderly uncle and aunts by a 45 year old friend of her long-dead father, a married psychology professor named Michael. An illicit affair has started between the pair which throws them into direct conflict with the traditional views of her new household and the repercussions of the actions of all concerned result in catastrophic consequences.
At the heart of the story is the newly orphaned Rose, an accomplished stage debut from Tuppence Middleton with a lovely blend of cut-glass properness and spirited rebelliousness as she strains against society’s conventions in the single-minded pursuit of her ill-starred affair yet not so devoid of emotion that she disregards her only remaining family completely. Christopher Villiers as the professor feels a little miscast as he never really brings to bear any sense of what it is that might have ensnared Rose’s affections so, but his attempts to rationalise the behaviour around him and justify his own using the psychology he teaches have a pugnacious persuasiveness.
Where the show really excels though is in showing the world that Rose is so stifled and horrified by. Cherry Truluck’s design of claustrophobic and faded domesticity sits perfectly in the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre and occupied by the ageing siblings, it perfectly represents the stultifying environment she cannot bear to be trapped in. In a morbid twist, after the death of any member of the household, their room is closed off permanently and so the sense of this being a dying breed is keenly felt, the name of the titular living room gaining greater significance.
Christopher Timothy is perhaps a little too placid as the overly symbolic Father James, trapped in a wheelchair for 20 years and slowly losing his faith, but there is exemplary work from the two actresses playing his sisters. Diane Fletcher’s Aunt Helen captures the right note of corrosive fundamentalism that burns as much as it blesses and Caroline Blakiston is most affecting as the frailer Aunt Teresa, fragile but wise and altogether a stunning performance.
As one might expect from as eloquent a writer as Greene, there’s a measured steadiness to the writing which contrasts the antiquated world of blind faith with a more modern take based on reason, director Tom Littler imbuing these debates with a conviction and intensity which brings life to this one-room drama. The belated arrival of Michael’s wife prefigures an atypical late burst of action which veers into the melodramatic but the shock value is well earned and in the aftermath, the power of this morality tale is truly felt.