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
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
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.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?