THE LONELY HEARTS OF WARTIME
If you need relief from the current outbreak of extreme social primness about male behaviour, you’re going to love the bit with Clive Francis , as the elderly Mr Thwaites, going batshit-bonkers on pickled walnut Martinis when tempted by the generous Teutonic cleavage of Lucy Cohu’s MIss Kugelmann. The first act of this deceptively entertaining play certainly ends with a bang.
I say deceptively, because although there is some wonderful sly comedy from the start, its strength is in a humane, rueful, oddly hopeful understanding of loneliness and of the way we try to make real connections through what one of them calls the “glass wall” of our separateness and suspicion. Tim Hatley’s design elegantly underlines this theme, its elegant sliding changes offering momentary chiaroscuro glimpses of aloneness. No character is all bad, nor all good; even the most minor of them, in fleetingly sketched moments, reveal both their handicap and their hope. It’s lovely.
This was a novel by Patrick Hamilton, whose famous play GASLIGHT was an enjoyable cod-Victorian melodrama. His novels, though, are different: moodier, their important events internal; and they are set in the world he knew: seedy 1930’s and 40’s:London, bedsits and boarding-houses, scruffy pubs and parties. This late one, with more comic vision and a bit more hope, is now brilliantly transformed for the stage by Nicholas Wright.
In a boarding-house in Henley we find our heroine Miss Roach (Fenella Woolgar, perfect in every thwarted, eager, scrupulous move and expression). A former teacher who “couldn’t control the boys”, she saw her flat blown open in the Blitz and fled to this sanctuary, reading manuscripts for a publisher , regretting an affair with her married boss, barely tolerating the elderly company. Miss Barratt and Miss Steele are amiable enough (this play is full of glorious moments for maturer actors playing long-formed characters) but from his separate table, over the spam fritters, Clive Francis’ Mr Thwaites is gloriously nightmarish. He’s xenophobic, mocks Roach’s socialist principles, and rarely deviates from coy, codgerish Wallace-Arnold archaisms (“Dost thou foregather in the Rising Sun” etc). He is far from welcoming her new friend, the dangerously charming American Lt Pike (Daon Broni). Artfully, Wright has made the Yank a black GI, thus enabling sarky Thwaites remarks about our “dusky combatant from distant shores” . Perfect.
On the other hand, despite his hatred of Germans, the old man is very much taken with Miss Kugelmann, a German emigrée. Cohu wickedly gives it her hipswivelling all as a rapidly maturing but determined party-girl with whom the prim Roach has unwisely made friends out of kindness, and introduced in to the boarding-house. The sometimes beautiful delicacy of Miss Roach’s romance with the American is rudely shattered by what Thwaites might call the frolicsome Fraulein, and things escalate disastrously. Indeed Kent has given us a sly flash-forward at the start, which makes us expect something even worse than what happens.
But the joy of it is that not only their denouement but everyone else’s isolation and cures are evident. All the cast catch the Hamilton , period, mood perfectly, not least Richard Tate as the elusive Mr Prest, deemed a mere drunk by the old ladies, but who wisely stays sane by nipping up to the Leicester Square pubs to meet his old showbiz friends. Or there’s a seventeen-year-old soldier (Tom Milligan) who remembers Miss Roach as his old teacher (an extraordinarily moving, transformative moment between them is again delicate , fleeting).
There is a sense of each character’s past, and potential redemption: there’s Miss Steele the Oxford classicist, unwillingly retired after a 35 year career in archaeology, cheerful Mrs Barrett . And the latter’s sister (Gwen Taylor plays both, in a cheeky twin-sister-twinning) becomes a dea ex machina, a GP more than pleased to be back in harness for wartime. She delivers, indeed , the briskly important line “If one is lonely at a time like this, one deserves to be”. Ah yes. It is as if Hamilton’s moody 1930’s fictions (like Hangover Square) grew in the rough soil of wartime into something more purposeful. Maybe much of Britain did. After a fragmenting Christmas chaos in several lives, Miss Roach’s final vision is that life trudges on: “There will be more love, more hate, more goodbyes, more sudden deaths… God help us every one” .
The dry echo of Dickens’ Tiny Tim is no accident.
Box office 020 7722 9301 www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 25 Nov
rating five. Because I can’t resist it.