SEX AND SOCIALISM: AN EDWARDIAN ESCAPE
The view E.M.Forster sought for his heroine in the novel is more than a pretty Italian backdrop or a Surrey hillside – though this unfussy, delicate setting offers us both. Views are projected behind an uncluttered stage which transforms from pensione to backstreet, riverside, cathedral, conservatory and a reedy English pond which (for the first time here since the theatre’s gorgeous Mrs Henderson presents) goes nude. A brief and splendid scuttle of bare-arsed embarrassment by three men enlivens Act 2, the eldest – Simon Jones as Mr Beebe – in nothing but his clerical collar. That’s our happy view. The metaphorical and important one, as sought by the innocent, half-defiant half-reluctant Lucy Honeychurch (Lauren Coe) is a view out of the stifling decorums of Edwardian England. Beyond their sheltered circle, she says once, lies “poverty and vulgarity, orange peel and broken bottles”. And, in another direction, headlong and fulfilling love affairs.
But alone she cannot raise the nerve to assert her unacknowledged desire for the wilder rougher shores of life and love. It takes a catalyst: the rough-spoken parvenu socialist Emerson – a splendid Jeff Rawle – and his chippy, brooding son George (Tom Morley). Opposing Lucy’s escape – or is she really? – we have the cousinly chaperone Charlotte, one of the great female grotesques of literature given full absurdity, and ultimately redemptive pathos, by the exquisite timing of Felicity Kendal. Pleasingly, she is out-grotesqued and thus humanized by the presence of the far more dangerous character, the lady novelist Eleanor Lavish being given equal brio by Joanne Pearce. The quintessential British snob-tourist despising her countrymen, feet up and fag waving, Lavish proclaims “I revel in shrugging off the trammels of respectability!”, but takes no risks. Whereas spinster Charlotte, in her own way, does…
Forster’s story of the holiday encounter and its Surrey aftermath is rich in his yearning themes : of art’s importance and a sexual energy which alone can connect the beast and the angel in man. In plot it is slight enough: in the novel it was deepened by a slower pace and prose. Yet Simon Reade’s adaptation makes a highly entertaining evening, and underlines Forster’s beautiful humour and drily observed dialogue. “Is he a friend of yours?” “We are friendly” “Then I shall say no more!”. Charlie Anson’s Cecil Vyse, posing and writhing elegantly above his ridiculous spats like a Beardsley drawing come to life, is marvellously funny, and a good foil for the awkward intensity of his hot-eyed rival (Tom Morley).
Some, admittedly, may feel that a masterpiece of a novel has been bleached of its seriousness (especially politically) and turned into a mere Edwardian rom-com – a wrong man, a right man, a slow realization of which is which. But enough of its essence is there, performed with energy and honesty by this fine cast, to draw a new generation to this marvellous writer. For like Tennessee Williams and Rattigan and Coward and Bennett, Forster belongs to that odd and significant company of gay men who, oppressed themselves, created some of the most memorable female characters we have. For that I give thanks. It’s touring, last night tonight in Bath; off to Brighton and Richmond next.
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