THEATRE / Tough times in open spaces: Paul Taylor reviews Pinero's Trelawny of the 'Wells' at the National Theatre

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The Independent Culture
John Caird and company can't have been too overwhelmed with comradely compassion when Toby Robertson's production of Trelawny of the 'Wells' opened last December to lukewarm reviews. That version was, rightly or not, widely regarded as a spoiling operation, popping over the horizon only after the National had already gone public with its plans for a Caird Trelawny in the new year. This latter is now premiered in the Olivier and it demonstrates, in spirited fashion, how, far from managing to steal its thunder, Robertson's star-stuffed Christmas turkey of a show has simply provided a flattering foil for the superior virtues of Caird's warmly funny and richly sympathetic account of Pinero's play.

The one faint question-mark that dangles over this staging is the choice of stage. Written in 1898, the play looks back with affectionate amusement on the theatre world of the 1860s, when the false histrionics and vapid rhodomontade of the once dominant school was coming under threat from the new realism, represented in this drama by aspiring young playwright, Tom Wrench. His life- like comedy Life, which pastiches the style and one-word titles (Caste, Society) of the dramatist Tom Robertson, is rehearsed in the last act on the boards of an onstage theatre.

At this point, the two fragments of proscenium arch and the sideboxes that have hitherto stood like apologetic relics on either side of the Olivier's vast acting arena, slot into place in a full recreation of the Victorian proscenium stage. It's an exhilarating moment, but you can't help feeling that the change is more apparent than real. John Napier's lovely self-contained sets in effect smuggle elements of the Lyttelton (perhaps a more natural venue for Trelawny) into these wide open spaces, while hiding the vacant expanses aloft with large coloured engravings. The play looks neither lost here nor thoroughly at home.

The cast and atmosphere are first rate, though. Where, in the Robertson production, Sarah Brightman was just a sweet genteel chipmunk throughout as Rose, Helen McCrory's performance beautifully traces the character's development from the headstrong, passionate girl who is principally an actress (on and off) to the thoughtful, deeper actress who is principally a woman. There's a wonderful comic moment when, declaiming against staginess, she catches herself in a fiery operatic pose and struggles out of it as though it's something stuck to her person. Equally affecting is Adam Kotz, who is all awkward, thread-bare yearning and thwarted idealism as the lovelorn Tom, though the production implies too heavily that his creative urge is psychological compensation for failure in love.

As the Telfers, grand old pros at the start who have sunk to bit parts and wardrobe mistressing by the end, Michael Bryant and Betty Marsden are both touching and absurd in the wounded stoicism that reveals how their love for one another has survived reduced circumstances. Telfer is offered a tiny role as 'an old, stagy, out-of- date actor'. Swallowing hard, Ms Marsden is all tactful hesitancy as she asks, 'Will you . . . be able . . . to get near it, James?' Adopting a little smug, sublimely oblivious smile, Mr Bryant concedes that he may. This pair take comfort from the fact that today's innovations are tomorrow's cliches and that their supplanters will one day get the push.

Racked with groaning repressiveness, Robin Bailey's hilarious, sad non-thespian Sir Arthur feels that plays have no business to reflect life. That they should and do is delightfully conveyed here during the rehearsal. Doddering on in determined protest, Sir Arthur coincides with his fictional equivalent doing exactly the same. A witty, revealing touch typical of a fine production.

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