The Hotel in Amsterdam, Donmar Warehouse, London
A Woman of No Importance, Haymarket Theatre Royal, London
The Recruiting Officer, Garrick, Lichfield
Charming, funny ... and totally vile
Sunday 21 September 2003
Michael Grandage's master plan as the Donmar's artistic director has been to bring overlooked modern classics to our attention. This has paid off at last, quite brilliantly, with A Hotel in Amsterdam. This long-forgotten 1968 play by John Osborne comes across as a small but perfectly crafted gem in Robin Lefèvre's superb revival.
Admittedly, if the acting was less fine-tuned, this city-break drama could seem slight as Osborne serves up two hours of talking with little action. Having given their demanding boss the slip for the weekend, three couples who work in the British film industry check into a chic suite in the Dutch capital. Considering the date and location you might expect this to degenerate into a collectively steamy affair if not a sex farce.
Yet what is quietly gripping about the scenario is that everybody just sits around, ordering more and more Scotch but never quite having the devastating row that's brewing. In fact, they mostly just listen to Tom Hollander's Laurie, a successful, egocentric and vituperative scriptwriter who has much in common with Osborne: he mouths off entertainingly and outrageously about his many obsessions including air hostesses and homosexuals, his monstrous mother and the boss, KL (a fictionalised version of Tony Richardson, Osborne's ex-flatmate and the original director of Look Back in Anger).
One or two of Laurie's speeches would benefit from cuts but essentially this is a subtly shaped, bleak slice of life which - unlike Look Back in Anger - never feels creaky. Maybe Hollander could lose his grip with more inner desperation, but he effortlessly captures Laurie's mix of working-class bullishness and poshed-up arrogance. He is charmingly funny and simultaneously vile, with a disturbing glint in his eye - even when he privately declares his love to Olivia Williams' arch but emotionally shaky Annie. Though Hollander doesn't remotely resemble the elongated Osborne, this pint-sized bitter imp somehow encapsulates the playwright's quintessence or self-image. Moreover, the minutely observed naturalism of the whole ensemble alerts you - through little pauses and ambivalent silent looks - to all the complex class tensions and potential loathing beneath the surface. Susannah Harker is frighteningly cool as Laurie's imperious Sloaney girlfriend, gazing ahead as he habitually strokes her arm. Anthony Calf's limp public-school Gus and Adrian Bower's long-haired Dan aren't as hilariously foolish or mellow as they seem either.
Laurie - laughing off his effeminate side - says he is always being taken for Oscar Wilde when in America. Over at the Haymarket, the two most interesting things about Adrian Noble's revival of A Woman of No Importance are the surprising parallels with Osborne's play and how Wilde's personality appears to be refracted into several of his own characters, male and female. Lord Illingworth is strikingly like Laurie as well as Oscar: a devilish wit who's been embraced by the upper classes because he's outrageously amusing. That said, the crude misogyny of Laurie is very different from the tight-lipped Victorian condemnation of "fallen women". Wilde takes a stand against sexist hypocrisy in this portrait of an essentially good single mother, Mrs Arbuthnot, who hides her past from her son, Gerald, and aristocratic neighbour, Lady Hunstanton, until Illingworth shows up like a bad penny.
In many ways this is a B-rate play, with epigrammatic repartee giving way to melodrama and sentimentality, but it's fascinating on an autobiographical level. One is strongly reminded that Wilde was an Irish outsider amongst English aristocrats, both by Illingworth's order-challenging quips and the meritocratic American character, Hester, who furiously criticises those who snub her. There's also an implicit psychological battle going on within Wilde as he condemns the amoral Illingworth, defends Mrs Arbuthnot as if she were on trial for her sexually unorthodox life, and tussles with Hester's imbued religious beliefs about carnal sin.
Unfortunately, none of that makes up for a lot of second-rate acting in showy period cossies. The suspicion that Noble has sold-out to tacky West End values is not a welcome addition to this play about true worth and compromise. Prunella Scales's Lady Hunstanton is particularly lamentable, fluffing numerous lines and Julian Ovenden's permanently grinning Gerald is excruciatingly slushy. Three performances, mercifully, save the day. Samantha Bond invests Mrs Arbuthnot with true passion. Joanne Pearce's Mrs Allonby is potently risqué, and Rupert Graves's suave, flippant Illingworth becomes chillingly determined to wrest Gerald from his mother.
Finally, a footnote on The Recruiting Officer. The Garrick is a brand new, redbrick and sheet-glass regional theatre. Though its bright airy foyers lack character, the auditorium is snug with a small proscenium arch. George Farquhar's 18th-century comedy about a dashing soldier combines romance with a gritty portrait of military corruption, and Owen Sharpe's Sergeant Kite is a hard-bitten rogue with real ferocity. However, James Hillier's Captain Plume appears to have no swash to buckle and Annie Castledine's production is peculiarly feeble. One hopes her co-director Corin Redgrave - playing a cameo role as bragging Captain Brazen - is enough to encourage the locals to sign up as regular theatregoers.
'The Hotel in Amsterdam': Donmar, London WC2 (020 7369 1732), to 15 Nov; 'A Woman of No Importance': Haymarket Theatre Royal, London SW1 (0870 901 3356), to 31 Jan
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