Thursday, 8 March 2012

Theatre review: Farewell to the Theatre

Melancholy is the overwhelming tone of Richard Nelson's new play Farewell to the Theatre, set among a group of English ex-pats in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 1916. World War I rages but America hasn't joined yet and on a university campus, British experts are popular on the lecture circuit. Widow Dorothy (Jemma Redgrave) runs a guest house, and is in competition with her late husband's mistress over who can mourn him the longest. Her brother Henry (Louis Hilyer) is an English lecturer at the University, and neither of the siblings seem to be popular on campus. Beatrice (Tara Fitzgerald) is a married former actress having an affair with Charles (cute American actor William French in his professional stage debut,) the new president of the student drama society, while Jason Watkins' Frank is the cake-loving Dickens expert. The most recent arrival is Harley Granville-Barker (Ben Chaplin,) the actor, director, playwright and theorist whose ideas challenged theatrical tradition and who argued in favour of a National Theatre decades before it became a reality. Around this time in his life, Granville-Barker became disillusioned with theatre and eventually left it altogether; he also wrote a play called Farewell to the Theatre, from which this play gets its title, presumably in order to cause maximum confusion. It's also a bit misleading as it's not just Granville-Barker's crisis Nelson's play is concerned with.

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.

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