Trelawny of the Wells, Donmar Warehouse, London


Film director Joe Wright (of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice fame) has theatre in his blood (his parents ran the beautiful Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington), but this is his first venture for the stage. 

You might have thought it fitting, therefore, that he has chosen to make up for lost time by reviving Pinero's good-natured comic valentine, penned in 1898, to the world of plays and players in the 1860s. But self-reflexive drama and meta-theatrical in-joking require a sureness of touch that's lacking here and the first half of this production feels terribly laboured and unfunny and concept-driven.     

The Trelawny of the title is Rose, the young star of the Sadler's Wells troupe, who abandons acting to go and live, on probation, in Cavendish Square with the crusty upper-class family of her intended, Arthur (Joshua Silver). Their censorious behaviour drives her back to the theatre but her brush with life beyond the boards (all four weeks of it) has seemingly robbed her of the trick of melodramatic acting. 

Amy Morgan beautifully captures this lost-in-limbo quality. Rescue comes in the shape of a new play by fellow-thespian Tom Wrench (a lovely, mischievous and shrewd Daniel Kaluuya) who is pioneering a more natural approach. In Patrick Marber's nipped, tucked and cannily amended version, there's a wittily heightened sense of real life and art feeding off each other in the rehearsal of this inset work at the close.

It's a play about the inevitability of changing fashions in the theatre and the human cost of that.  But in its heavy-handed determination to register – through shifts in design (Hildegard Bechtler) and performance styles – the evolution of ideas about depicting “reality”, Wright's production risks condescension to the profession that Pinero so affectionately guys. 

Crudely overstating the pantomimicry of the old guard, the director nudges us in the ribs with glaringly rubber food in the farewell lunch and Ron Cook bustles about in bonneted drag as the theatrical landlady, Mrs Mossop, before returning in the next scene as Arthur's splenetic grandfather, Sir William Gower. It's hard enough to believe that Rose learns dissatisfaction with melodrama from these grisly toffs but quite impossible here when, with the cast doubling as “gypsies” and “respectable” folk, there's a general epidemic of consciously artificiality and grotesque caricature.

Matters improve in the stark, stripped back circumstances of the final act, with Peter Wight and Maggie Steed an infinitely touching mix of absurdity and solemnity as a pair of hammy old has-beens who at least have the bleak comfort of knowing that one day the young turks will be on the scrap heap in their turn.

To April 13; 0844 871 7624