POETS AND PACIFISTS, LOVERS AND LOSS: A ‘THIRTIES TALE
Modern historical recreations are valuable in this WW1 centenary year, but there is something thrilling, a frisson of caught reality, in contemporary writing. Especially plays, and especially rendered with as much intelligent respect as Anthony Biggs and his cast give to this 1933 drama . It’s by John van Druten (author of I Am A Camera, and the recently revived London Wall. A seemingly conventional drawing-room piece about a family affected by the 1914/18 upheaval twenty years later, it is a haunting study in memory, love, bitterness and trauma: all the confusions and unhealed scars of the “low dishonest decade”.
Two sisters are at odds. Glacially poised Naomi (Sophie Ward) is in a cool, comradely marriage to an affluent art collector: Mercia (Debra Penny) an embittered stay-at-home daughter combining envy with contempt – “Your life’s all based on standards that mean nothing to me”. But it becomes apparent how both were blighted, their lovers killed in action but not before angry differences. Now the death of their father , a rural Vicar, reignites memory: 1934 frames flashbacks of 1914 and 1916.
But in the play’s 1934 present, Lewis’ secretary Beryl (Victoria Rigby in a finely judged, weary-eyed low-key performance) has diffidently introduced them to her boyfriend Leonard (Max Wilson). He is a fascinating addition to the play’s complexities: burning with intensity and TB. A less inhibited version of Forster’s doomed clerk Leonard Bast, he is a ‘30s autodidact: a bookshop assistant with a passion for art, culture, dreams of travel and a profound 1930’s pacifism. He even challenges his hostess for having been a nurse – “You did wrong! You were helping the war…telling them they were heroes, patching them up to go back..” He has particular scorn for the romantic soldier-poets (school of Rupert Brooke) who wrote about being sleepers awakened to glory, and for clergy, like the late vicar, who spoke of the divine redemption of war.
In fact, we learn in flashback, Naomi’s Richard was one of those poets (later sinking into bitter disillusion) and Mercia’s Tommy was the opposite: a musician who studied in Germany and defied the jingoism of others, including Mercia who snarls that “Shellshock is pure funk” and “If we allow this war to end with one German left alive, one stone standing, I’ll kill myself”. Subtly it becomes clear that these opposite reactions are part of the same trauma: the shock-wave that crumbled into irony the Edwardian certainties about patriotism, class, and women.
It is a talky, discursive period-piece with edges of melodrama – even the supernatural – and none the worse for that. Van Druten is tremendous at depicting female sensibilities, and Ward, Penny, and Rigby are finely pitched: the older pair handling the contrast of their younger selves brilliantly. Gabriel Vick gives Richard’s transformation an angry conviction, and Max Wilson as the excitable Leonard is explosive and – despite a spooky 1930’s twist at the end – ultimately convincing.
So here’s another beautifully improbable Jermyn triumph: who would expect, in this tiny space, a cast of eleven (Biggs must have wondered whether to ditch the butler) and a fine naturalistic set by Victoria Johnstone. She places us firmly and intimately in an affluent 1934 drawing-room, transformed with dim-lit bustle into a family tea-table by an inglenook in a country Vicarage. Detail, lamplight, candlelight, moonlight, firelight feed in to the pity and understanding both of the period, and of the writing which tried to make sense of it. It deserves full houses.