This is the second Pinero play I’ve seen revived in the last couple of years; it was also by far the better production. The National Theatre’s production of The Magistrate tried too hard and was ultimately unsuccessful. With a teeny fraction of their resources, in a theatre smaller than the Olivier’s stage, this was successful. Written in 1895, 10 years after The Magistrate, it is a well crafted look at the role(s) of women in Victorian society and the dominance of the aristocracy. Rhiannon Sommers was superb as Mrs Ebbsmith, matched with yet another excellent performance from Christopher Ravenscroft. Straightforwardly and skilfully directed by Abbey Wright, it was produced by Primavera Productions formed by Tom Littler who also directed Dances of Death, my favourite play in a small theatre last year. I don’t intend to miss anything by them.
I am sure this could have been good but in the end it was very frustrating. Farce works best by being played straight, allowing the comedy to build up from the complexities of the script; in this they added sub Gilbert and Sullivan songs. The actors should end up overplaying because that’s where the script forces them; in this, they overacted from the start. Farce works by adding layers of absurdity to a simple, normal setting; in this they created a cartoon set (see picture above from the NT’s FaceBook page, complete with wacky slanted door). Nearly 20 years ago, I saw Griff Rhys Jones in Charley’s Aunt showing how it can be done – the only thing I didn’t like was the pain in my stomach from laughing too much.