Agnes Colander At Jermyn Street Theatre: A Bold Revival That Doesn't Pay Off
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Reprising a work whose own author said it should probably be destroyed is a bold move — even more so in the compact and bijou surroundings of the Jermyn Street Theatre. Largely-forgotten playwright Harley Granville Barker is divisive: for some, he's the progenitor of modern theatre, while others view his prefaces to Shakespeare as a necessary evil to be endured during English A-level. Here, he’s been reworked for modern audiences by a briskly sympathetic Richard Nelson.
Despite its 21st century regrout, Agnes Colander is a play in which very little happens, as its subtitle, An Attempt at Life, suggests. It’s no bodice ripper — despite our retro view of the Edwardians as heaving with pent-up passions, Agnes undergoes only a very gradual loosening of the stays. Director Trevor Nunn says he would have called this play The Question of Sex, given the choice, but that might have promised more than it could have delivered.
We see our heroine, a self-styled 'mediocre artist' become slowly less buttoned up as she transitions from a dank studio in West Kensington to an airy French holiday cottage (replete with airy French maid), her corsets exchanged for a liberty bodice (which despite Otto’s best efforts remains defiantly unripped) and then to 'reformed dress' and running away with the besotted Alec. There’s a neat bit of business with doors swinging open and closed, suggesting opportunities and the road not taken.
Matthew Flynn’s Otto brings a brooding sexualised energy to the stage, wolfing down roast chicken in a manner that suggests he’d like to wolf down our Aggie. Harry Lister Smith is the lovestruck young admirer, coming to life only when his proposition is — to his astonishment — accepted. Sally Scott, as the apparently emancipated Mrs Majoribanks, turns sharply conservative with convincing malice when her morals are challenged, adding colour and brio to a sometimes lumbering plot. But unsurprisingly it’s likeable Naomi Frederick’s sympathetic Agnes on whom the piece depends, as she steadily becomes more and more open to suggestion as time wears on.
Robert Jones’s set deserves a special mention — the light gradually rises, moving from a darkened city garret to the luminescence of the seaside, and it fills the matchbox-size performance space without overwhelming it.
Despite all this, and with much in its favour, there’s too much of the predictable, such as the swelling accordion music heralding act two, which caused someone in the audience to exclaim, “Oh! We’re still in France then!”, and too little new is revealed in this restoration. Despite valiant efforts all round, it’s difficult to breath life into a moribund work of this sort. Agnes we see largely through the lenses of men — the playwright and his updater; the director; and the men who surround her onstage. A partial picture of Edwardian womanhood and in a reworking of this portrait of an artist as woman, we might have expected a little more colour to emerge from the shade.
Agnes Colander, Jermyn Street Theatre, Jermyn Street, SW1Y 6ST. Tickets £30, until 16 March 2019.
Last Updated 21 February 2019