BENEATH THE STREET, DARK PASSIONS BATTLE…
What better place to muse on secretive 1930’s sexual angst than under Jermyn Street, once synonymous with sharp shirts and smart tarts? The Jermyn has dug up some wonderful examples: early or unseen Rattigan, rare Novello, a bizarre Graham Greene: atmospheric tales of transgressive love suit that intimate, close up setting where you actually cross the set beforehand to the TOILET sign. Lovely.
This time, director Tim Luscombe has skilfully edited a piece by Mordaunt Shairp which ran on Broadway in 1933 with Olivier and Jill Esmond. It’s about a young man in love (with a girl) being clung to by the possessive, wealthy male mentor who adopted him at eleven years old (for a bung of £ 500 to his drunken Welsh dad). Mr Dulcimer (great name!) has formed Julian to be as hedonistic and aesthetically precious as he is. But can he lure the lad back from the arms of the vet Leonora, one of the inter-war generation of determinedly independent women?
The piece is none the less fascinating for being excoriated as “the most dishonest and morally disreputable play” of the period by the critic Nicholas de Jongh, for stepping away from the gay-angst-persecution genre and making Dulcimer manipulative and predatory. And the fact that the Lord Chamberlain nodded it through unchanged does make you a little uneasy: the legend of posh vicious gays seducing honest, straight working-class lads fuelled the nastiest era of homophobia, and for some still does. Leonora’s taunt to Julian takes your breath away: “I hope I shan’t meet you one day in Piccadilly with a painted face, just because you must have linen sheets!”.
But it’s a strong play about needy possessiveness and the lure of wealth, and it was brave of Shairp simultaneously to risk a homoerotic theme and then annoy its (still persecuted) constituency with a caricature of ruthless camp. In Act I, indeed, I was taken aback by Richard Stirling playing Dulcimer barely one notch down from Jules and Sandy. But what else can you do with a character who mimsily arranges flowers and berates his butler (a nicely deadpan Alister Cameron) with “I don’t think I could trust you with a tulip”. He also has a country retreat and purrs “You’ll find the amber pool preferable to the sweaty transports of the Westminster Baths. I think I shall have amethyst cushions this year..”. Well, you gotta play that camp, and it’s not Cowardy-camp either.
But the play develops, and Christopher Leveaux’s handsome Julian becomes torn between his comfortable billet and his love. Leo cleverly reintroduces him to his real father,who has become a lay-preacher. The Welsh hymns call to something “very old and far off…rugged and sad” within him, competing with the scented Chopin delicacy of his other life. Leveaux, for all the absurdities, gives a real sense of a youth struggling to escape the damage done by soft spoiling (Dulcimer never even sent him to school, preferring to oversee his aesthetic education).
He is petulant as he tries to study as a vet (“reading up a lot of flapdoodle in order to give some filthy little Pekinese an emetic”). But his dissolution – after some terrific confrontations between Dulcimer and Poppy Drayton’s fine, angry Leonora – is genuinely horrible, and played with complete sincerity. And so is the older man’s admission that his mission was “to create a cage for Julian’s soul in which he sings to me as sweetly as in that stuffy Welsh schoolroom all those years ago”. There’s a grand melodramatic conclusion, 1930’s style, and a creepy final scene with more flower-arranging.
box office 020 7287 2875 to 21 December http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk