DISTINGUISHED VILLA.      Finborough Theatre SW10

REFINED AND FEATHER-DUSTED: CRUELTY IN THE SUBURBS

We are in a suburban drawing-room in 1926,  which some characters will still call  the “parlour”.  Near the front, close enough to touch the aspidistra, you feel very intimately involved, especially with the gaunt, melancholy figure of Matthew Ashforde as the man of the house,  Natty,  as he listens to a wind-up  gramophone  playing a sentimental ballad.  His tidy, aproned wife Mabel disapproves, due to a line in the second verse she regards as improper, especially on a Sunday. That word  “night”: suggestive!   

        Take that as a good sly comedy-of-manners joke, and at first that is the tone :  we watch Mabel deny poor romantic Natty a mere peck of a kiss,  disapprove of his giving the lady-librarian lodger a frivolous nickname, and refuse the shocking idea of going to the cinema due to her cherished delicate health and nerves (“Dr Board wouldn’t hear of me sitting in such an atmosphere”).   She also explains how well she has raised her flightier younger sister Gwen,  and her theory of male misbehaviour as “always the woman’s fault. They have no hold on their husbands, of that I’m sure”.      

        There is  absurdity, but this is a dark and angry play, as cross as Osborne in its way,  and after this comedy-of-manners first act with everyone’s emotions politely damped down,  it ripens into real emotional chaos and tragedy.   For Mia Austen’s Mabel is a dangerous monster:  her refinement truly vicious, her hypochondria and frigidity weaponized in control of Natty.  Austen somehow disciplines her naturally cheerful features into a perfect , unchanging resting-bitch-face, mouth down, permitting only rare little smiles of malice.  No wonder Kate O”Brien’s first play, before she became a noted novelist,  was received both as a “masterpiece” and as “squalid and horrid”.  Perhaps too recognizable to too many.  But at least her subtle treatment of sex,  of frigidity and longing and danger,   meant only a few ‘improper’ lines were cut by the censor.

         Small theatres rediscovering long-forgotten plays from the early 20th century are a treasure:  to see our own time levelly we need to understand the evolution of attitudes and taboos. These  people are our grand- or great-grandparents, closer than Shakespeare’s nobles ,Sheridan’s fops, Austen’s spinsters or even Shaw’s Edwardians. They walked our streets, staffed companies still flourishing, typed on Querty keyboards.  Women between the wars were in transition, more dramatically  than in the much-hyped 1960s.  A few days back we saw Dorothy Sayers’ steely, defiant abandoned 1930s wife and daring mistress at the Jermyn, women  rounding  together  on a pompous man who prizes housewifeliness and shrinking-violet humility.  Here by contrast it is a wife who exploits  just those supposed qualities, with the man as the victim.

          Natty, like Forster’s Leonard Bast,  longs for music and life and feeling,  something beyond the daily grind and frigid wife.  But he  hangs on as long as he can until the final explosion of trapped grief.   Fascinatingly, it is the more swashbuckling John,  fiancé of flighty Gwen,  who sees beyond the surface:  “Proud and remote as an eagle, that funny little beggar”.   Ashforde gives us all that, in a memorable performance and his disintegrating interaction with the cool, kindly lodger Frances (Holly Sumption) in the second act is stunning.  A lesser playwright would have made him declare love to her, but O’Brien knows that he needs more than cheap romance.

          The character of Frances herself I found a bit problematic: she is filling the authorial role of the observant, benign outsider to a trapped society, as in “The passing of the third floor back” or “An Inspector Calls”,  but steps out of that cool role into a less convincing affair of her own.  The two men who desire her – villainous, callous Alec and bluff hiking John – are a bit of a caricature,  Brian Martin’s John indeed is forced into real 1926 likes like “I must kiss you!”. But in a way those two are necessary to point up the extraordinary, desperate, heroic depth of poor Natty.   O’Brien is not saying that all men are trapped by virago wives, any more than Sayers was saying all women are men’s pawns: she is just dissecting one of the many ways in which social  absurdities can spiral down into deep human tragedy.  You may find the end melodramatic.  I found it credible, heartbreaking, and in Mabel’s final speech, as diabolic as anything in drama.  

Finboroughtheatre.co.uk.  To 1 oct

Rating four.

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