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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar Warehouse


  Ph: Johan Persson

Here’s a very curious little confection, sugar-sweet but offering next to nothing to sink the teeth into. Arthur Wing Pinero’s comedy of romance among Victorian theatricals, in a new, tweaked version by Patrick Marber, is an unashamedly lightweight piece of fluff. It flirts with the idea of change – both social and dramatic– and the nexus between the emotions we experience in our lives and their portrayal in, and inspiration of, art. But essentially this is a work steeped in affection for theatre itself that makes few demands of its audience. Watching it in the 21st century, in an exuberantly hammy production by Joe Wright – the successful film director behind Atonement, Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice, here making his theatrical debut – it’s difficult to evade a certain sensation of amiable pointlessness.
Lovely young Rose Trelawny (Amy Morgan) is the darling of the Sadler’s Wells acting company. But she’s gone and fallen in love, with stage-door suitor Arthur Gower (Joshua Silver), a docile chap who is from frightfully stuffy old upper-crust stock. She departs her thespian life amid great affection and celebration and moves in with her betrothed to his grand family home, where she must win the approval of his ghastly grandfather Sir William Gower (Ron Cook) and aunt Miss Trafalgar Gower (Maggie Steed). She quickly discovers that this is no easy, or indeed enjoyable, business. Appalled by their snobbery and emotional constipation, she deserts both her new life and her lover and returns to the stage – only to discover that stepping out of her old, artificial world has made her incapable of functioning within it and she can no longer play the sentimental roles that made her name. So, along with a fledgling female producer and a playwright from among her former cohorts, she sets out to create a new, more lifelike kind of drama.
Wright’s production is very jolly, with Steed a gorgon in petticoats possessed of absurd fastidiousness in morals and manners as the dyspeptic aunt, Cook ranting fit to bust a blood vessel as the irascible Sir William as well as dragging up to play backstage factotum Mrs Mossop, and Morgan sweetly charming as Rose, caught helplessly between two worlds. And the theatricals are a divertingly wacky bunch, most notably Daniel Mays as a leading mad with a penchant for the ornate and poetical, and Aimee-Ffion Edwards as the gurgling, flirtatious soubrette Avonia Bunn. Designs by Hildegard Bechtler also ensure that the production looks remarkably handsome, with luscious silken costumes, and painted cloths and ludicrous props that are eventually whipped away to reveal the Donmar’s own bare brick wall as the new naturalism begins to take over. 
But all this trumpery and flummery just doesn’t add up to much. When Mrs Telfer (Steed again), wife to Peter Wright’s aged stager, comforts his husband as he despairs of seeing all the artistic certainties of his youth swept away, the drama strikes a genuinely touching note – and one that remains pertinent in out own modern age, transformed again and again by the rapid and relentless march of technology. But Wright’s production is too busy reveling in stagey excess, culled from the sentimentality and melodrama of the Victorian stage, to concern itself much with anything real – ironic, given that it’s the paradox of theatrical illusion and artistic and emotional truth that lies at the play’s candy-coated heart. It is not a profound work, but here it’s little more substantial than a pantomime. For all that, it’s performed with generosity and alacrity. But it leaves behind not much more than a whiff of greasepaint and a fading smile.


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