Thursday, 8 March 2012
Theatre review: Farewell to the Theatre
Hildegard Bechtler has configured Hampstead Theatre into a gentle thrust - she's a designer whom I associate with rather elaborate, solid sets, which makes her an ironic choice for a play about a man so opposed to the grand designs that had overtaken theatre in his day; but she's at her more restrained here, in the garden and dining room of Dorothy's guest house on a rainy afternoon and evening, Rick Fisher's low lighting contributing much to the subdued mood.
This is very much a character piece, long discussions building up the college's cruel politics that keeps Henry and Dorothy in constant fear, Harley musing on his ongoing divorce, and the contempt shown by some towards his radical ideas, while Watkins is excellent as the very model of the restrained Englishman keeping his emotions buried in the face of personal tragedy. The war intrudes on their conversations surprisingly rarely. Roger Michell's production could maybe have had a bit more variation in tone but really I think it's the play itself which is the main disappointment, I came out of it feeling as if it had had very little to say.
It's really the performances that save the show from being a damp squib, especially from Fitzgerald whose Beatrice, giddily infatuated with French's charming, Machiavellian student, brings the production its liveliest moments. The cast's efforts aside though, this is an oddly, almost stubbornly low-key play which Michell marshals steadily but does lumber with a horribly twee final image. But to end the review on a positive, if probably an unintentional one, I was tickled by the picture of US college fraternities not always having been quite the way they are in the movies: There's a wild frat party coming up, and for the entertainment they've hired Frank to perform some of his extracts from the Pickwick Papers.
Farewell to the Theatre by Richard Nelson is booking until the 7th of April at Hampstead Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.