Trelawny of the Wells grew on me. The first act, during which the cast veers towards ham and caricature irritates somewhat, but the second half explains the reasoning behind Joe Wright’s direction and almost all is forgiven.
The play, Pinero’s love letter to the theatre, tells the story of Rose Trelawny, a popular star at the Barridge Wells Theatre. The cockney Rose is courted by and falls in love with the aristocratic Arthur Gower. She leaves The Wells and moves in with Arthur’s grandfather and great-aunt, Sir William and Lady Trafalgar, in their smart, but stifling house in Cavendish Square. Not a good move, as Arthur’s elderly and very conservative relations are not only dreadfully dull, but also detest Rose’s loud and unrestrained personality. Unable to stand it any longer, she runs back to her theatre family, abandoning Arthur. Unfortunately her experience of the ‘real world’ has killed her talent for melodrama and she is unable to recapture the liveliness that made her a star. There appears to be one way out of her predicament in the shape of an emerging playwright, Tom Wrench, who is keen to write more realistic plays.
Amy Morgan makes a charming Rose and her and her actress friend, Avonia Bunn, played by the lovely Aimee-Ffion Edwards, have a great rapport. It’s just a pity that almost every actor at some time or other was placed directly in front of me, blocking everyone else and if that coincided with a speech by Aimee, a lot of the dialogue was lost. But then maybe I need my hearing investigated. No such problem occurred with the wonderful Ron Cook who starts the play as Mrs. Mossop, the theatrical landlady and then transforms into Arthur’s grandfather. I’m not quite sure why he plays both parts but, luckily, in this actor’s capable hands, the fact that he does, works. Maggie Steed also takes on two roles. That of Mrs. Telfer and Miss Trafalgar Gower. As Mrs. Telfer, she has a couple of the best lines in the whole production and delivers them with aplomb. My favourite and arguably the best interruption of a boring speech is, “Sit down, Mr. Gower. You finished long ago. Sit down”. Although it may lose something in the telling, in the flesh gives a master class in delivery. Her husband, actor manager, James Telfer, is excellently portrayed by Peter Wight, but I’m afraid that on this rare occasion a favourite actor of mine, Daniel Mays, doesn’t quite do it for me this time. His Ferdinand Gadd, whilst funny at times, does tend to push too hard for laughs.
What also doesn’t work quite so well is the way Joe Wright over exaggerates the artificiality of the actors during Rose’s farewell party at the beginning of the play. This device is obviously to highlight the change in theatrical styles, as everyone tones down their performance by the second half. But rather than just highlighting the changes it tends to patronize the characters. This is Joe Wright’s first foray into directing for the stage and maybe he is trying too hard. When he reins back a little and allows Pinero’s lines and Patrick Marber’s additions and ornamentations to speak for themselves, he fares much better.
There are some very funny moments and Hildegard Bechtler’s clever design, which strips everything away for the final act showing the Donmar’s back wall, helps to highlight the theatrical change. I’m just not totally convinced that Arthur Wing Pinero is my type of playwright.