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 & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit