THE PRICE OF VICE…
The accolade is a knighthood: services to literature for the debonair Will Trenting, already a Nobel for his novels on the seamy side of life. The play is set in his elegant library (a rather shoestring-flimsy set, but that’s the only unclassy thing about this marvellous evening). The writer jokes with his wife Rona that he is not respectable enough; she laughs and retorts “Falstaff was a knight!”. For she broadmindedly tolerates his occasional binges with booze and tarts in a bedsit at the Blue Lion pub in Rotherhithe. Their bookish young schoolboy son doesn’t know; Albert the valet-secretary-chauffeur is at home in both sides of Trenting’s life, and even when Harold and Phyllis from the pub turn up, a wide boy and a cartoonishly tarty barmaid, Rona is cheerfully welcoming. Nothing rocks the family boat. Yet.
One of the remarkable things about Emlyn Williams’ 1950 play, with two quite superb performances from Alexander Hanson and Abigail Cruttenden, is that you believe in this marriage and menage. In the cunningly crafted early scenes – which director Blanche McIntyre wisely does not speed up – you are drawn by Trenting’s charm: Hanson (so recently both Stephen Ward and Guy Burgess onstage) deploys satanically-browed, peaky assurance and an undertone of beguiling sincerity when he says of his lowlife fictional characters “Are they any worse than couples who nag each other from twin beds every night and are cruel to their children?” He also offers, when forced to admit his Blue Lion life to his censorious publisher Thane, a classic literary-slummer’s apologia: describing a big prostitute Diane sitting topless on his frowsty pub bed drinking Guinness and talking about her mother’s death. He contrasts rowdy, consensual warmly proletarian promiscuity with the deadness of a literary lunch. It is a perennial form of bad-boy romanticism: suddenly reminiscent of Stephen Fry’s sentimentalizing over “incredibly decent” cocaine dealers….
But as the first act ends the author detonates his bomb. And if we have been lulled into a period-play mood, reflecting smugly on how different things were in 1950 (who’d care if a literary knight was a bit of a party animal? we’ve had Sir Mick Jagger for years) we are jolted into reality. The lovable libertine’s classic plea that his vices are victimless is exploded, on the eve of his investiture. For one of the girls in the last orgy was not what she seemed. Neither (rather shockingly) are Harold and Phyllis. A blackmailer arrives; a wave of police, press and public outrage rolls in.
No detailed spoilers, but quite apart from Hanson’s terrific evocation of shock and regret, the performance of Bruce Alexander as the blackmailer is fabulous, a study in menacing, devious humbugging black comedy which simmers tensely before crashing into unexpected passion. And as if all that wasn’t enough to justify this wonderful play’s revival, a final scene between the father and Sam Clemmett – splendid as the son – is at once truthful, moving, heartbreaking and shockingly funny. A real find. Once again, all credit to the Finborough for digging it up.