Friday, 28 November 2014

Theatre review: The Green Bay Tree

Concluding the Jermyn Street Theatre's season reviving forgotten inter-war plays is one that could probably have done with being left forgotten. In Mordaunt Shairp's The Green Bay Tree, Dulcie (Richard Stirling) is a flamboyantly camp, vastly wealthy middle-aged aesthete who, twelve years ago, adopted an alcoholic's son as his ward. Now 23, Julian (Christopher Leveaux) has been raised to his mentor's lifestyle, so is barely-educated in anything other than flower-arranging and turning up fashionably late to the opera. So it's a shock to him to discover, on presenting his guardian with Leonora (Poppy Drayton,) that if he marries her Duclie will cut him off from his allowance. Reconnecting with his reformed father (Richard Heap,) Julian attempts to live a more frugal life and study so he can join Leonora's veterinary practice, but once the novelty wears off he finds luxury is hard to give up for long.

Broadly speaking I'm in favour of reviving all sorts of plays, not just Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, in different settings to the ones the playwright originally gave them. But in the case of Tim Luscombe's production, making it modern-dress fails on a number of levels: It's inconsistent, Dulcie controlling everything in his flat with a universal remote like a conductor, but communicating with Julian by telegram. It's purely cosmetic, not really offering any modern parallel to the 1933 setting, and leaving the whole premise making no sense (so we're meant to assume that around 2002 a single middle-aged man was allowed to basically legally buy a young boy to do with as he saw fit?) And in stripping away the period quaintness that might just about have excused some of the more offensive ideas in the script, it exposes the play's weaknesses all the more starkly.

Namely the fact that the story's central conflict over Julian, between Dulcie's money and Leonora's love, is set up very early on, with most of the rest of the play just retreading it. A scene of Leonora confronting Julian with the fact that he's essentially prostituting himself for ballet tickets has a spark of power thanks in part to Drayton being quite a strong performer, and almost feels like it could have something to say about modern-day materialism. But it doesn't because words like "pleasure" and "luxury" aren't the hardest code to crack, and Shairp is quite obviously presenting a different story - that of a predatory, sinister older gay man trying to groom and seduce an attractive younger man. With the period trappings removed, Luscombe can't even present the production as a criticism of the playwright's unpleasant views on homosexuality, so we're simply left with quite a nasty little piece whose performances also start to grate as it goes on - Leveaux's rather literal physical demonstration of not knowing which way to turn is perilously close to Legz Akimbo Theatre Company fare. Sadly, there's little to recommend this.

The Green Bay Tree by Mordaunt Shairp is booking until the 21st of December at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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