How splendidly the Donmar adapts to every new production: from the blinding pennants of the Spelling Bee school gym to the stark guns-and-gantries of the all-female Julius Caesar and now an authentically lamp-black pickled Victorian music hall with soaring columns, creaking boards and a whiff of oranges and cheap scent in the pit.
Rose Trelawny is the darling of the ‘Wells’ theatre troupe but leaves to marry a young posh bloke. Although she finds his family stifling and eventually bolts, on her return she’s lost her ability to act. The situation is saved by a young writer in the company who’s invented a new and more naturalistic style of play which suits Rose’s new manners.
It’s a vehicle for author Arthur Wing Pinero’s campaign to change the nature of theatre, seeking to reflect real people in credible situations, here by ridiculing the bombastic and overdone performances of the time. Ironic, really, when you think how his farces like Dandy Dick and The Magistrate still depend on strident acting.
It’s a doubly Londony show, too: set in 1865 when Sadler’s Wells – long before it became the terpsichorean temple of the Waitrose-going classes – was the satellite TV channel of its day churning out lurid melodramas for a lowbrow audience, and the director is Islington-reared, Central St Martin’s-trained film maker Joe Wright who turned Keira Knightley into Anna Karenina.
In the same way we couldn’t wait for that train to arrive, and although both the ideas and the plot are interesting and amusing, Trelawny is a very slow burner and takes too long to develop. Patrick Marber’s script additions blend seamlessly with Pinero’s original and the cast double both the acting troupe and the frightful society family, none better than Ron Cook as the stern Vice Chancellor and a theatrical landlady who’s a close cousin of Old Mother Riley.
Playing Rose, Amy Morgan trills prettily and simpers in a white frock as readily as Amanda Seyfried in Les Miserables but the best of the casting is in the smaller roles: the wonderful Maggie Steed as a fading actress and disabled dowager, Daniel Mays as a posturing ham actor of the oldest possible school. Finest of all is Daniel Kaluuya voicing Pinero’s own opinions on theatre and the development of the new realism as the hesitant playwright Tom Wrench: excellent characterisation and subtlety in a play where most others are deliberately cartoon figures.
Trelawny of the Wells continues at the Donmar Warehouse until 13 April. Tickets from £7.50 (standing) to £35. Buy tickets from the Donmar Warehouse website, or by phone 0844 871 7624. We received ticket and programme from The Corner Shop PR. We are asked to mention that the production is supported by Barclays (£10 Front Row seats released every Monday at 10am) and The Stuart and Hilary Williams Charitable Foundation.