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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida Theatre


  Jessica Turner and Helen Lindsay/PH: Johan Person

If you never thought a room full of men in suits could make for entirely scintillating theater, you owe yourself the first scene of the second act of the director Samuel West's Almeida Theatre revival of Waste, the definably English play from Harley Granville Barker that more than survives a sometimes lumpen first half to grab ferocious hold after the intermission. As the Tory swells gather to argue their points of view within the lushly appointed South Kensington manse of their most fruitily spoken member, Horsham (Hugh Ross, who can locate comedy in the repetition of the single word no), one feels that, yes, there always will be an England - not merely because this level of debate exists in such opposition to the debased ad hominem rhetoric of our current age but because the London theater uniquely possesses the kind of strength in numbers capable of animating such a coterie of personalities. The actors - none of them famous, every single one first-rate - look as if they are having a ball with Granville Barker's century-old political and social gamesmanship. (Watching these backroom boys go at it here, one could be witnessing a poshly accented equivalent to the high-level maneuvering in, say, the Oliver Stone film, W.) From that second act starting point onward, Waste wants for precisely nothing as it makes its way through to a contrastingly intimate ending that may leave you feeling misty-eyed.

For the first half, to be honest, I wasn't entirely sure that West had found his way into a play that seems to get a defining London revival about once a decade. The Royal Shakespeare Co. staged the play in the mid-1980s in a production starring Judi Dench and the late Daniel Massey, while Peter Hall did notably well by the same text during his too-brief Old Vic tenure, in a very fine 1990s production with Michael Pennington and Felicity Kendal. Regardless of who is at the helm, there's a lot to slog through in the initial scenes of a play that begins as an Ibsenesque study in man at potential odds with his society only to deepen into a Chekhovian exercise in loss and desolation, as befits a dramatist who was not only a contemporary of Shaw but, like the playwright-critic, knew his theater inside out.

Henry Trebell (a sotto voce Will Keen, occasionally mistaking lack of audibility for intensity) is a 45-year-old political independent whose support is being sought by various Tory party grandees to assist in the passing of a bill that will raise money for education by disestablishing the church. (The minutiae of this scheme contributes to bogging the first hour or so of a lengthy evening down.) But even as Granville Barker finds a dry wit in the sorts of machinations that are with us still (Don't be paradoxical I'm tired, remarks one of them, Michael Thomas's Farrant, in what is less a quip than a drolly stated expression of fact), it's that old canard - namely, sex - that sells the sizzle. The play gives us Trebell at the start involved to ruinous effect with a married Roman Catholic and then thrown back for company on a spinster sister who ends up playing Sonya to her guilt-wracked brother's own, hushed Uncle Vanya.

As director, West brings a gathering potency to a play that genuinely benefits from so enquiring an intelligence - not to mention the kind of detail extending to period-perfect stationary that I only happened to come across up close during a subsequent tour of the theater, which took in the set. Keen not long ago played T.S. Eliot in Tom and Viv at this same address, and this expert actor remains a master of emotions gone clotted or clamped-down whereby a conventional phrase like I dare say comes to seem in itself a cry for help. You can smell disaster from the early badinage between Trebell and Nancy Carroll's vampy Amy O'Connell, a te


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