“What does one do with the pickled walnut?”
The Hampstead’s failure to engage properly with issues of female creative representation on its main stage (out of seven shows for 2017, only one was written by a woman and none were directed by women) has meant it has dropped off my must-see list of theatres. But on reading the synopsis of Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude – adapted by Nicholas Wright, directed by Jonathan Kent, designed, lit and sounded out by men too natch – with its lead female protagonist, I was persuaded to revisit my stance.
And in some ways, I’m glad I did. For that leading character, Miss Roach, is played by the ever-marvellous Fenella Woolgar and she’s partnered by Lucy Cohu, another favourite actress, and there are moments in this gently played Second World War-set story that shimmer with effectiveness. Bombed out of her home by the Blitz, Miss Roach (“I do have a first name, but I don’t encourage people to use it”) finds herself swept up in a different type of conflict at the Henley-on-Thames boarding house where she now resides.
Forced to live with a set of characters considerably older than herself, an affair with a black US soldier and her friendship with a German émigré who then moves in simultaneously provides a diverting sense of excitement and a serious threat to the even keel of her archetypal English reserve. This is perfectly exemplified in a gorgeously staged scene where Roach finds herself on the fringes of the drunken carousings of an impromptu late-night house party, her conflicted balefulness communicated devastatingly by a wordless Woolgar, lit solely by the feeble glow of a table lamp.
The subtleties of Hamilton’s novel haven’t always been best served by Wright’s adaptation though. There’s a stateliness and genteelness that rarely rouses the pace of Kent’s production, the thematic strength of how that resolve is used to plaster over a society crumbling under the pressures of war results in something almost too restrained. The vibrancy of Cohu’s flirtatious Vicki Kugelmann and the vituperative nature of Clive Francis’ Mr Thwaites cut through the reserve though, and the detail of Tim Hatley’s design with its screen-wipe device offers visual splendour to match Woolgar’s nuanced performance.