THEATRE / A brass-bowelled barnstormer

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The Independent Culture
THE ARRIVAL of Pinero's Trelawny of the 'Wells' on the South Bank immediately after its much-abused Comedy Theatre revival affords a splendid pretext for slagging off commercialised classics in comparison with the subsidised theatre where, as we all know, opportunistic star-casting is unknown. Regretfully, I must pass up this chance as I missed the West End show.

If there were any justice in this world, the argument ought to go the other way, as Trelawny (for any management that can run to a cast of 25) belongs to the tawdry, precarious, warm-hearted commercial theatre that it depicts. It is not a play that can withstand much detailed probing.

Shaw admired its 'dainty workmanship'. But what about, say, the character of Charles, the obliging butler who admits Rose's 'gypsy' friends into the Cavendish Square mansion at the risk of his job? Rose sympathises, but when her friends wreck the place, all Pinero's sympathy fastens on them. There is not a word on the fate of poor old Charles. Then there is Sir William's arrival at Rose's lodging, where this doddering pillar of mid-Victorian rectitude confesses his juvenile passion for Edmund Kean. A touching scene, according to Pinero's innocent intentions. But dig into it, and you find a long- celibate old judge, who insists on rigid propriety in his own home, visiting an actress and getting her to dress him up as a king and put a sword in his hand, while fumbling with his wallet. Rose's friends arrive just in time to stop Genet taking over the scene.

Trelawny is a lovely old piece, but it has to be played with a surface brio that stops you inquiring too closely into what it is saying or what may be going on under the lines. In this respect John Caird's production is good enough for the West End. It trusts Pinero's comic instinct, and plays his effects for all they are worth: from Robert Demeger's hilarious business as a maladroit waiter with two left- hand gloves, to the contrast between the Wells's boisterous farewell party and the petrified gentility of Cavendish Square.

The Wells troupe comes across as a family, whose bickering and jockeying for status conveys mutual attachment. The trick is to secure ensemble give-and-take from a group in which all want to star. Kevin Williams arrives as Colpoys, the low comedian, seemingly hogging the stage with a breathless anthology of clown routines, to which the queenly Imogen (Nicola Redmond) responds, 'Good afternoon, Augustus'. This brings the house down. He knocks himself out so as to hand her the laugh on a plate. I have seen funnier versions of the party scene, but only at the expense of its disintegration into individual turns. Here characters such as Avonia, the panto star (Emma Chambers), and Gadd, the romantic lead (Steven Pacey) are etched in for the sake of what they will contribute collectively. The impact of Gadd's vainglorious opening flourishes is nothing compared to his waspish asides over the lunch table. Michael Bryant and Betty Marsden as the Telfers assert their actor- managerial authority by assuming that their employees, like the public, are at their feet: complacently dignified, loading the slightest remark with momentous significance ('I am going to remove my bonnet'), but happily fading into the background when the action moves elsewhere.

It is Rose's farewell party, and Helen McCrory rightly dominates it. In doing so, she presents two characters - the upper-crust wife-to-be, and the top-billing actress. No sooner have you registered the fluttering sentimentalities of the first, than the loud- voiced second elbows it aside with brusque comments on budgeting and a full-throated chorus from The Pedlar of Marseilles. Though it is not until the second act that this invincible trouper hits her stride, scattering Robin Bailey and Bridget Turner, the palsied custodians of Cavendish Square, more powerfully than the accompanying thunderstorm.

The missing link in the story is its hero, Tom Wrench, the failed actor whose plays are shortly to drive the Wells company into oblivion: a role Pinero gratefully modelled on Tom Robertson to whom he attributed his own success. When Trelawny first appeared in the 1890s, he delivered his affectionate memoir of the barnstorming 1860s from the commanding heights of the cup- and-saucer school - which was shortly to be displaced by Shaw, who went straight back to the 'brass-bowelled barnstormers'. Caird's production tries to take account of this: partly through John Napier's set, which frames a dividing platform stage between a shattered proscenium arch so as to assert the transience of fashion; partly by pillorying Wrench's 'new' actors as tailor's dummies with none of the old Wells vitality. This leaves Adam Kotz's Wrench out on a limb, as a reforming

naturalist who comes through with a piece that creaks worse than the Pedlar. If only he had become a better actor and married Rose instead.

'You can't run a country if people know how it's done,' protests a frantic vicar in Ken Hill's version of H G Wells's The Invisible Man, thus underpinning what might seem a mere magic show with the robust politics of Stratford East, from which theatre it has transferred to the West End. If audiences knew how Paul Kieve's illusions worked they might walk out. As it is, they sit spellbound as a room is ransacked by unseen hands, a policeman backs in pursued by a gun, and the hero (Michael N Harbour) unwraps his bandages from the empty space where his head ought to be, while still smoking a cigarette.

True to Mr Hill's past form, the story-telling is a fine old mess. Characters are apt to acquire amazing mathematical and musical powers for the sake of a passing gag; the permanently enraged protagonist is intent on practical jokes, regaining visibility, and world domination in no particular order; and the dialogue ('Think]' 'What with?') would have sounded a bit rusty even to the Wells management. The slapdash impression, though, is a deliberate means of lowering the audience's defences. Enter two news- vendors bawling 'Extra, read all about it'. Stereotyped reign of terror headlines follow. Then on simpers Toni Palmer: 'Sewage inundates Slough; no damage reported.' Miss Palmer and Brian Murphy, playing a prescient clown, are two veterans of Joan Littlewood's Stratford, where spectators get the message ('He ought to rule the world as well as them as does it now') quick enough. In the West End, I fear this show may become a hit with non-English-speaking tourists.

Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane may not quite have made it to the A-level syllabus, but it has long been taken on board by the public Orton meant to outrage. Hence the force of Jeremy Sams's canny revival, which promises an evening of harmless perversion before letting the psychopathic hero loose on his senile victim (Christopher Hancock) with a gardening fork. Ben Daniels's fast, snake-like Sloane looks dangerous from the start. There is nothing remotely sinister about Janet Dale and Ian Gelder as his carnivorous hosts until they have him at their mercy. Until then they offer some deft light comedy playing; after that they prove that Orton can still chill the blood.

'Trelawny': Olivier, 071-928 2252. 'Invisible Man': Vaudeville, 071- 836 9987. 'Mr Sloane': Greenwich, 081-858 7755.