Last night I witnessed a play that is described as a love letter to the theatre, and what better place to produce such a play than one of the London venues I love the most, the wonderfully intimate Donmar Warehouse, where Trelawny of the Wells is currently playing.
Rose Trelawny is the star actress at the Barridge Wells Theatre (modelled on the original Sadler’s Wells Theatre in Islington.) She is Trelawny of the Wells, a belle of the ball amongst audience and fellow thesps alike, who recall her performances with glee. However, her imminent marriage to lover Arthur Gower forces her to give up her life on stage and move to Cavendish Square to live ‘on approval’ with his dictatorial grandfather and great-aunt, Sir William and Lady Tralfagar. Rose finds life in their Cavendish Square residence unbearably dull and restricted and, despite her love for Gower, she returns to the theatre. But Rose’s exposure to ‘real life’ has rendered her unable to act in the melodramatic manner through which she had once found fame, resulting in her sacking from the Wells. Rose questions her choice of returning to the life of the ‘gypsies’ until a business deal with a familiar face allows her to regain her status on stage, as well as the love she had lost.
Having braced myself for a 19th century play, which might not have been what the doctor ordered at the end of a long working day, I half expected unintelligible dialogue, over-the top melodrama and class stereotypes, but what I got was exactly the opposite. Thanks to the collaboration of a unique creative team, we were treated to one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time.
First, I must commend a brilliant script edit by Patrick Marber (Closer, Dealer’s Choice, Notes on a Scandal), which provides familiarity to a 100-year old play and countless laugh out loud moments. Director Joe Wright, in his theatrical debut has brought his film experience (Anna Karenina, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) to the stage in magnificent fashion, allowing the actors time to explore moments and emotions in the play, which may otherwise have gone amiss. Growing up with his parents’ Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington probably contributed a lot to this production’s theatricality, as the actors’ physicality and humour jelled slickly with superb timing. Hildegard Bechtler’s design is simple but stunning, with clever and occasional comic use of the trapdoor. The costumes by Laura Hunt were also beautifully done.
Finally, the wonderful cast. And what a cast has been assembled! Veterans of stage and screen include Maggie Steed who plays both Mrs Telfer and Miss Trafalgar Gower – the latter showing off Steed’s comic timing superbly – and Ron Cook whose two characters could not be more dissimilar if they tried. First, Cook’s Mrs Mossop, the theatrical landlady at the Wells Theatre, allows him to don a dress and prance around the stage as if he were the ‘Dame’ in Pinero’s pantomime. His second character, Sir William Gower, provides some marvelous mirthful moments and yet also moments that were very touching, especially in his scene with Rose at the Wells. Susannah Fielding played a wonderful Imogen Parrott whose faux pageantry was on the mark, and whose slips back into common theatre gypsy were genius. Aimee-Ffion Edwards’ over excited character, who longs for her 15 minutes of fame in pantomime each year, is a refreshing boost to scenes that would otherwise start to dip, and her baby Cockney accent (which I recognized from her stint in the BBC TV series Luther) fits the part remarkably well. Daniel Mays is great as Ferdinand Gadd, the Wells’ leading man, who also provides some wonderful comedic moments, while his physical presence is an asset to this piece. But perhaps the crowning glory of this funny and charming production, is Amy Morgan herself as the funny and charming yet vigorous Rose Trelawny. Her portrayal of the title character is captivating and thoroughly convinces us as to why young Arthur Gower should fall for her so deeply. Strong performances were also true of the rest of the cast including Daniel Kaluuya, Fergal McElherron, Joshua Silver, and Peter Wight; and Jamie Beamish who played several comedy roles, all of which with great aplomb.
Trelawny of the Wells is described as Arthur Wing Pinero’s love letter to the theatre and, if his intention was for the audience to reciprocate his amour, he succeeds on every level. From the Victorian parlor songs to the pantomime farce, from the stunning set pieces to the charming moments of tenderness, if this show doesn’t have you smiling from ear to ear, laughing out loud and at times sobbing into your programme, then nothing will.
Until 13th April.
This production is supported by The Stuart and Hilary Williams Charitable Foundation.
The Donmar also receives significant and on-going support for the company’s work from their Principal Sponsor, Barclays.