THEATRE / Seeking a second opinion: Paul Taylor on the first of two revivals of Pinero's Trelawny of the Wells

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It's unclear quite what we've done to deserve it, but London is being treated to two revivals of Trelawny of the Wells within the space of a few weeks. First comes Toby Robertson's production (just opened at the Comedy Theatre) to be followed, before you can say Arthur Wing Pinero, by John Caird's version at the National in the New Year. Hard to see, though, how this amiable, sentimental comedy could be re-appraised once, let alone twice.

Certainly a jolting transplant to Fascist Italy, say, or present-day Belfast, is categorically not on in this instance, since no play is more firmly rooted in time or place. Written in 1898, it looks back with affectionate amusement at the theatre world of the 1860s when the false histrionics and vapid rodomontade, which had become characteristic of the regime at Sadler's Wells, came under challenge from the new realist school. Its representative in the comedy is Tom Wrench, a young playwright based on Tom Robertson, author of such 'cup-and-saucer' dramas as Society and Caste. The charm of Pinero's piece comes from the nostalgic, wry way it recognises that the innovations of one age become the cliches of the next, and that all pushers get the push, too, in their turn.

Given the theme, it's an ironic quirk of Robertson's disappointing production that, by and large, the younger members of the cast are roundly outclassed by the old guard. In the first half, for example, Margaret Courtenay is a hilarious, ostrich-feathered dragon of a grande dame, her experience of playing some 13 tragedy queens lending a remark like 'I am going to remove my bonnet' the booming, fateful sound of, say, 'I am going to liberate Carthage'. But in the second, reduced now to the job of wardrobe mistress, she rises to true tragic dignity of a kind in her stunned but stoic realism about the changing times.

Michael Hordern deepens in a comparably moving way as Sir William Gower. Playing the repressive vice-chancellor, put out that his grandson is engaged to an actress, he does his bemused bloodhound routine to wonderfully comic effect (the doddery groaning between lines has developed into a language in its own right). A man who makes the call for whist sound about as jolly as a summons to family prayers, his Sir William reacts to the intrusion of music into the house with the nervous despondency of someone presiding over the collapse of civilisation as we know it. He's vividly partnered by Janet Henfrey as his lugubrious-faced, like-minded sister. In the later scene, though, where his grandson's fiancee shows him her souvenirs of Edmund Kean and accidentally triggers memories of his impulsive youth, Hordern hauntingly lets you see an old, shaken man suddenly confronted by a bleak vista of missed opportunities and roads not taken.

Among the younger crowd, only Oliver Parker makes a decisive impact, as a charmingly out-at-elbow and impetuous Wrench. Lacking the right spirit, Helena Bonham Carter gives the sort of performance that makes you pine to be in the restricted visibility seating as jaunty Imogen Parrot, star-turned-theatre-manager. Ms Bonham Carter doesn't so much cut a dash as shred it to bits, her very bark of laughter sounding false and phoney. As the actress-fiancee, Sarah Brightman is too sweetly genteel from the outset to convince us that she's improved by meeting 'real' people in Cavendish Square. Some of the theatre folk are characterfully played but they don't have the raffish company-feel which John Caird brought to the Crummles scenes in Nicholas Nickleby. Come to think of it, perhaps London does need a second Trelawny.

For booking details see London Theatre Guide, below.

(Photograph omitted)

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