Leafing through Farewell to the Theatre’s programme, we were a bit startled to see it’s based on Harley Granville-Barker. Should we have heard of him? Will it matter if we haven’t?
Well, the first is debatable. Granville-Barker was a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw who also revolutionised Shakespearean staging. The second is no - Richard Nelson’s new play is a winner and almost a bonus that it uncovers a relatively unknown figure in theatrical history.
So, it’s 1915 and we’re in quiet American backwater Williamstown, Massachusetts. Granville-Barker has left war torn England, and has fallen in instead with a group of British eccentrics, all teachers at the local school. Although this might sound harmless and ordinary it isn’t. Each character harbours a skeleton or distressing secret in his cupboard and these are revealed by surprising turns. Like a murder mystery, there’s a feeling of foreboding over what will be discovered next. On the outskirts too are a bully headteacher and the spectre of war, both menacing atmospheres drifting over the stage.
All this is harnessed by some frankly brilliant performances. Ben Chaplin (another potentially below radar legend, who once played geeky accountant opposite Nicole Kidman in Birthday Girl) plays Granville-Barker as a world-weary thinker, very deadpan and charming. Chaplin has the power to captivate even with the slightest twitch of a facial muscle. Tara Fitzgerald as Beatrice, is a sort of dizty cougar, in lust with the young American schoolboy. A nerdy teacher who can recite Dickens off by heart; a twitchy, harassed English master; a wan widow (Gemma Redgrave); and a Duke-of-Wellington-type travelling school teacher (Andrew Havill) complete the line up.
Making a small American school in the 1900s its stage of hopes, deceptions, despotism, cruelty and personal tragedy, Farewell To The Theatre is a memorable and absorbing mix.
Farewell to the Theatre is at Hampstead Theatre until 7 April. Tickets £22-29.