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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Green Bay Tree
Jermyn Street Theatre   November-December 2014

When an author is forced to write in code, as a result of censorship or other social pressures, the result can sometimes be a more subtle and textured work than total freedom might have produced. 

Mordaunt Sharp's 1933 drama is never openly about what it's about, but as a result it is about much more than that, and is a much richer drama and character study. And even the very uneven production adapted and directed by Tim Luscombe allows its power to come through. 

A young man raised as the ward of a rich aesthete has come to accept luxury, idleness and lack of any responsibility other than to be a charming companion as his due. So when he falls in love with a woman, the prospect of getting a job and leading an ordinary middle class life is frightening. 

Yes, of course, but Sharp couldn't say so out loud, and had to restrict himself to allusions to the older man's artistic nature, his flower arranging and needlepoint, and his dislike of women. 

But as a result a play that may well be about the young man's confused sexuality is not just about his confused sexuality. 

The code – his inability to leave his gilded cage (The image actually appears in the play) and the lack of backbone and moral fibre that exposes – is ultimately far more interesting, involving and dramatic than the question of whether he and his patron ever Do It. 

Tim Luscombe's production lets us see and appreciate this when the director's sometimes self-defeating decisions don't get in the way. 

He encourages or allows Richard Stirling as the older man to flounce about the stage more broadly camp than Larry Grayson imitating John Inman doing Kenneth Williams. 

Aside from sabotaging Sharp's carefully constructed code, this just about destroys any dramatic credibility (Don't any of the other characters notice?), while being a bothersome distraction in a play that isn't primarily about him. 

(It also kills some of the play's few jokes, as lines that might have some Wildean wit if delivered dryly are drowned in forced broad innuendo.) 

Stirling is not on his own in broadly overacting, as Christopher Leveaux as the younger man relies largely on, and the rest of the cast slip occasionally into, a totally external and signifying mode coming close to the mugging and eye-rolling of silent film acting. 

The least infected by this directorial choice is Poppy Drayton, who is largely within realistic bounds as the woman. It is notable that she is the centre of the play's strongest scenes – one in which she tries to force out some moral strength from the young man, and one in which she openly battles Stirling's character for her lover's soul. 

She alone always plays the play as written, not the one beneath the code, and very much to the production's benefit. 

There are other problems, partially generated by budget restraints, though you would hope a director might have found other ways around them. 

The play is solidly set in the 1930s, with period attitudes and characterisations and references to 'the wireless' and the like. But Stirling's character uses a modern electronic remote control to turn on his sound system and dim his lights, another character listens to a cassette tape recorder, and the budget didn't extend to a period telephone. 

These things matter, because a young man facing his inability to live without luxury (or, if you prefer, a young man coming out) in the 1930s is a very different story from the 1980s or the 2010s. 

We wouldn't notice these peripheral flaws if the production were strong and stylistically consistent enough to hold our attention and emotional involvement. As it is, we can certainly appreciate Mordaunt Sharp's accomplishment, even if this production only fitfully draws us into it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Green Bay Tree - Jermyn Street Theatre 2014


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