Donmar, London

Theatre review: Trelawny of the Wells - Here's to us, theatre people to the corps

3.00

Social mobility gets top billing in a pair of revivals packed with period detail

Film director Joe Wright, who gave Anna Karenina an elaborate theatrical framework, slips backstage again in Trelawny of the Wells, his first stage production. Arthur Wing Pinero's 1898 comedy (brushed up by Patrick Marber) follows actress Rose Trelawny as she ditches her thespian friends at the (Sadler's)Wells theatre for a young gentleman. Fitting in with his uptight, upper-class relatives, however, proves no easy role – stifled by demands that she neither sing nor sneeze, she's soon back on the boards.

Her sojourn in Mayfair seems to have knocked the stuffing out of Rose, who can no longer act in the required grand, declamatory style. But a change of theatrical fashion is waiting in the wings – the company stages a new, (comparatively) realist script by player-turned-playwright Tom Wrench. Pinero's own writing being tightly constructed – plot developments flared up for the audience with all the subtlety of a gas lamp – this play-within-a-play neatly mirrors the lightweight romantic story of Trelawny too.

The Donmar is tricked out like an old Victorian theatre, with shell-shaped footlights, barrel organ and sing-songs during scene changes, painted flats and backcloths – although the latter will drop for the final scenes. They are not the only thing that drops. Throughout, the luvvies' heightened acting style is mocked, but also spills over: most of Trelawny is performed with excessive emotion and comic exaggeration, from pantomimic men in frocks to knockabout slapstick. But just as the actors, when rehearsing Wrench's play, must learn a new way of performing – with "great passion but no demonstration of it" – so Wright's cast slowly, fortunately, slip into more nuanced, natural performances as the show goes on.

Wright's production is good on movement; the ensemble cast keep things trippingly light as they pirouette across the stage. It's exuberant too in caricaturing stage stereotypes – Amy Morgan as Trelawny lives up to her name, a blossomy English rose, and while Daniel Mays camps it up as a high-falutin' leading man, Aimeé-Ffion Edwards nails the role of his gobby, giddy girlfriend.

It could be seen as bold – or ingratiating – of Wright to begin a theatre career by paying homage to the art-form itself, but this clearly stems from real affection. However, the broad comedy can wear thin. Trelawny is as frothy as Rose's chiffon gown, and hardly more substantial.

Rutherford & Son (Playhouse, Oxford ****) also features a young woman parachuted into a world of frosty relations and upper-class pretensions. Again, generation gaps and a struggle for upward social mobility are dramatised, albeit in a rather more serious tone.

Mary moved in with her husband's overbearing father, John Rutherford, for the sake of her infant son's health. Rutherford runs the home with tyrannical force, and is prepared to sacrifice the happiness of his three children for the success of his glass-making company.

Written by Githa Sowerby in 1912 – when it was rare for a woman to pen a play, let alone a smash hit – it was based on her grandfather, and set in Newcastle. This fine revival, showcasing the impressive muscularity of her writing, is by Northern Broadsides. Blake Morrison transposes the action smoothly to Yorkshire, sprinkling nowts and 'appens over the script. Jonathan Miller directs an assured production, led by company founder Barrie Rutter as Rutherford – a role that could have been written for him.

A light box functions as an ornate glass ceiling; the room is stiffly furnished in polished wood, gloomy but for a few candles in a December chill. Miller likens the text to Chekhov, but in its unravelling of bruised relationships, thwarted ambitions and family secrets, it even prefigures later American writers such as Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller.

Catherine Kinsella as Mary is ardent, humane, intelligent – believable as both the only high-minded inhabitant of the house, and a surprisingly shrewd businesswoman. Nicholas Shaw as her husband is twitchy, fluttery, a little too petulant. In contrast, forelock-tugging worker Martin (Richard Standing) succeeds through stillness. A tricky character; Miller makes him the stoical, silent type, and it works. And Sara Poyzer as daughter Janet is so bitter that when she finally speaks truth to power, raging at Rutherford, it's with such acidity that the audience recoils.

But she's nothing on Rutter's Rutherford. He puffs out his chest, commanding all hearth and home – and the auditorium too. There is dark humour in his scathing comments, but Rutter lets us see this domineering patriarch's own internal tragedy, while still punching home his destructive cruelty. Weighty stuff, in the best possible way.

'Trelawny of the Wells' (0844 871 7624) to 13 Apr; 'Rutherford & Son' touring to 1 Jun

Critic's Choice

Love Letters Straight from Your Heart is a moving experimental piece: actor-DJs read out dedications to loved ones written by anonymous audience members. It's at the Swan Theatre's Ferguson Room, Stratford-upon-Avon (Thu-Sat). In London, James McAvoy's Macbeth is a brutal action hero with a tender side, at the Trafalgar Studios (to 27 Apr).

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy