“But what have they knighted you for?”
a 1950 play by Emlyn Williams, is receiving its first ever revival here at the Finborough as part of their RediscoveriesUK season. Considered a controversial play at the time due to its unashamedly frank approach to sexuality, it will hardly seem risqué to modern audiences but as it is a rather tightly-constructed drama filled with suspense and given an excellent production here with Blanche McIntyre directing, one can’t help but wonder how on earth it has taken so long to get this back on the stage!
Set in London in 1950, Will Trenting is a novelist who has received notification that he is to be knighted and fully embraced into respectable society. But his scandalous novels have been born out of the double life that he has been leading and the attention that comes with this accolade being awarded to him exposes his predilection for drunken orgies in the East End with partners of all ages. Just before his date with Buckingham Palace though, a shocking charge is made and the fallout threatens his carefully balanced mix of family life and wilful hedonism.
In its defence of an unapologetic sexually promiscuous way of life, the play is a thinly veiled appeal for tolerance of alternative lifestyles, Williams was openly bisexual and clearly took inspiration from his own life for the play, but it also feels so incredibly current in the way that it indicts a society that is far too keen to rake over the private lives of anyone thrust into the public eye. One was reminded of the shameful treatment of the female football umpire whose holiday pics were recently splashed on the tabloid front pages despite her not being the main focus of the issue in hand.
Aden Gillett is excellent in the central role with what is almost two different characters, managing to build convincing relationships in both of his worlds and suggesting the inner torment as they eventually clash. Saskia Wickham’s quietly tolerant wife played the emotional restraint beautifully and Patrick Osborne’s bookish and comically geeky son completed a cohesive family unit. Williams pushes his point a little too hard though at the expense of credibility, especially in Trenting’s familial relations: the sainted wife who accepts his dual life as her lot is a little too good to be true and in the face of possible imprisonment, it would have been nice to see him display more remorse towards being parted from his son.
Simon Darwen and Olivia Darnley brought a real grounded humanity to their East-end couple, seemingly a world away from the Trentings’ world, but such warm, well-rounded characters that they were utterly believable as the reliable friends that they come to be. Alan Francis was strong as the ever-faithful and ever-resourceful butler, Emma Jerrold a vivacious ginger-haired friend and Graham Seed brought a creepy, lip-licking shiftiness to his would-be blackmailer.
James Cotterill’s design, creating the book-lined study that the whole play takes place in, is very well-realised and enhanced by Neill Brinkworth’s lighting. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the need to push some of the seating into the round around the edge of the auditorium and I think I’d advise sitting forward of the sofa. But in an interesting play with its timeless relevance combined with a vibrant production which has been excellently cast, the Finborough have revived a winner here: book now, this will surely sell out quickly.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 26th February
Labels: Aden Gillett, Alan Francis, Emlyn Williams, Emma Jerrold, Graham Seed, Olivia Darnley, Patrick Brennan, Patrick Osborne, Saskia Wickham, Simon Darwen