I am doing more than trying to write plays. I am writing plays. I have written plays.
Trelawny of the Wells, Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1898 play, is perhaps not as strange a choice as it might seem for film director Joe Wright’s first attempt at theatre: Wright was brought up in a theatrical household in Islington, not far from the Sadler’s Wells of Pinero’s title, and not only was his most recent film, Anna Karenina, set in a similar period, but Wright also chose to transport it to a theatre, so we know he has a taste for the meta-theatrical.
Meta-theatre is a central concern of Trelawny, which is both a play-within-a-play and a play about the theatre. The Trelawny of the title is Rose (played by Amy Morgan), the belle of the Wells, a blonde ingenue in white crinoline who charms everyone she meets. Indeed, she has even attracted the attention of a gentleman, Arthur Gower (Joshua Silver), for whom she has decided to give up a life of treading the boards in favour of a move to Mayfair and marriage. However, given that Rose is a girl who admits to being happiest “when I am recognised in the street”, it is hardly surprising that she finds her betrothed’s upper-class surroundings, where sleeping and whist provide the chief entertainment, suffocating.
Soon Rose is beating a hasty retreat back to the stage door, only to find that her talent for melodrama has deserted her. All her hopes now lie with Tom Wrench (Daniel Kaluuya), the bit-part actor and aspiring playwright (not unlike Pinero himself), who holds a candle for Rose, and whose play, celebrating the new “naturalistic” style of acting, is rehearsed in the final act.
Wright has assembled a willing and energetic cast: Ron Cook dons a dress and bonnet to play landlady Mrs Mossop, but he truly shines as Sir William, Gower’s great-uncle with a penchant for snuff and an interesting pronunciation of vowels; Susannah Fielding is appropriately elegant and haughty, but also cunning, as the actress Imogen Parrott; Jamie Beamish is excellent as Sir William’s son-in-law; and Aimee-Ffion Edwards is given ample opportunity to showcase both her voice and her great comic timing (though perhaps the role is too similar to the one she played in The Recruiting Officer, also at the Donmar). Daniel Mays is also good as the arrogant, posturing Ferdinand Gadd – a role that could easily slip into caricature – and Daniel Kaluuya makes for a gentle but steely Wrench. Unfortunately, Amy Morgan and Joshua Silver are disappointing as the central couple – I neither felt their passion for each other, nor was I moved by Rose’s plight. She loses her beloved, her livelihood and her talent, and yet Morgan left me rather cold.
However, not even a sterling effort from the cast – you sense throughout that they are really enjoying themselves, perhaps too much – can overcome the fact that this is a slight play. Wright tries to mask this with snatches of song and with comic set-pieces, but, while the second act is a riot, for much of the time the humour feels forced and over-the-top. There are so many ideas in this play that could give rise to serious thought – respectability, the role of women in 19th Century society and drama, how actors are perceived, the role of theatre, the changing fashions of the time and the effect they have on those concerned – but not even the great Patrick Marber (who apparently completely rewrote the final act) can rescue Trelawny from feeling less like dramatic truth and more like pantomime.
Final word should be given to Hildegard Bechtler, as the Donmar is not an easy theatrical space for a designer to work in, particularly so when the material in question is closest to Victorian farce. The Donmar has no space in the wings and the stage is also small, yet Bechtler, with the help of stripped wooden flooring, metres of fabric that unfurl from above, cleverly painted pillars and twinkling footlights, manages to evoke three very different settings. Her design echoes the narrative of the play, as it moves from exaggerated melodrama through to naturalism, and in the final act her design is so minimalist all we are given is the bare back wall of the theatre and a few chairs.