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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Accolade
St James Theatre   Winter 2014-2015

The strength of Emlyn Williams's 1950 drama is that it is an issue play that presents its issues in an honest, balanced and involving manner while dressing them in sympathetic and believable characters. The weakness of the play is that it is largely static and talky, and needs a sure directorial hand to bring it theatrically alive. 

Director Blanche McIntyre helmed a very successful production of Accolade in 2011 in the tiny above-a-pub Finborough Theatre (See our review). She now returns to it in the larger St James with a new cast, but something has been lost, and this new production is slower, less real and immediate, and generally weaker all around. 

A successful novelist who writes of low life and shocking sexual behaviour leads a double life himself. Every few months he leaves his respectable home and family for a weekend of debauchery among the lower classes. 

It is less the drink and sex that attracts him than the company of people who, unlike those of his more polite circle, can enjoy themselves uninhibitedly, and he argues that accepting this side of himself makes him a healthier man and a better writer. His wife knows about and accepts these periodic escapes, and he has neatly compartmentalised his life so there are no crossovers or complications. 

And then, on the eve of his being knighted for services to literature, a blackmailer appears. 

The playwright makes his case with striking balance and honesty – well, honest within limits, since it is generally understood that he is writing in code about the homosexuality of some contemporary writers. 

Still, while arguing that what consenting adults do in private and what accommodations married couples reach are nobody else's business, and that accepting your darker side may be healthier than repressing it, he also recognises that there are no victimless crimes and that compartmentalising life can be a delusion. 

For this to work as a play and not just a debating position, we have to believe in and care about the characters. We did at the Finborough three years ago, but here Alexander Hanson as the novelist, Abigail Cruttenden as his wife and Jay Villiers as a conventional and shocked friend – excellent actors all – are too often just actors reciting lines. 

There's too little sense of emotional reality – we might be at a run-through midway in the rehearsal period, when they're just walking through the play at half-steam to get the words and movements right without really giving a full performance. 

Without that reality, we're too aware of the mechanics of play structure and a ponderousness of pacing that seems naked without melodramatic movie music to underscore it and fill the pauses. 

There's more vitality and reality in the performances of Jay Taylor and Olivia Darnley as an amiable couple from the writer's other life and Sam Clemmett as his innocent son. But Bruce Alexander has been encouraged to play the blackmailer so broadly that he seems to have wandered in from a nearby Panto. 

Such near-cartoons may exist in real life, but they cannot inhabit the same stage as the underplaying others here, and his scenes contribute to the production's difficulty in establishing and maintaining a dramatic reality to embody the playwright's ideas.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Accolade - St James Theatre 2014

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