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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Trelawny of the Wells
Donmar Theatre  Spring  2013

A classic 19th-century comedy gets a warm and happy airing in this new production. Some might wish that director Joe Wright had found a brisker pacing or a more consistent tone, but the play's inherent charm and some first-rate comic performances carry the evening. 

Arthur Wing Pinero, writing in 1898, offers a loving and bemused portrait of the theatre of thirty years earlier, with all its melodramatic excesses and still slightly demi-mondaine reputation. Patrick Marber has contributed 'some most respectful additions and ornamentation', which I will guess take the form of cleaning up some typical 19th-century clunkiness and inserting some of the ever-so-slightly naughty and archly self-referential gags. 

The play opens with the Wells theatre company bidding farewell to their ingénue, Miss Trelawny, who is engaged to a young man of a well-off and decidedly non-theatrical family. But she and her stuffy in-laws-to-be don't quite get on, while her exposure to polite society inhibits her enough to make her return to the theatre unsuccessful.

Everything works out through a string of highly unlikely but dramatically satisfying plot twists, and no one is hurt or ridiculed beyond forgiveness at the end. 

Even without knowing the play you can guess that there will be comic roles for the more flamboyant or egotistical actors and the more stuffy and closed-minded toffs. And much of the fun does come from these secondary characters as the more central figures – Miss Trelawny, her beau, an ambitious fellow actress and an earnest young playwright – have their hands full moving the plot along. 

Joe Wright adds the the fun (no doubt driven primarily by economic considerations) by having several in his cast double roles, amusingly playing both sides of the town-theatre divide. 

The ever-reliable Ron Cook repeatedly steals scenes as (in drag) a bustling theatrical landlady and (out of it) the beau's super-stuffy grandfather. Maggie Steed, as a veteran actress in the old style and a maiden aunt disapproving of just about everything, more slyly hovers around the edges of scenes until she gets to slip in a zinger of a line. 

Amy Morgan and Joshua Silver are attractive as the lovers, Susannah Fielding sexily formidable as the actress with eyes on becoming a producer, and Daniel Kaluuya stalwart as the plodding but ultimately successful playwright.

I normally don't respond to productions of older plays that maintain an ironic distance as if to say 'This is just a load of tosh and I want you to know I don't believe it'. But Trelawny Of The Wells is a load of tosh, if a quite sweet and enjoyable one, and it can handle a bit of self-conscious sending-up. 

So the moments when the theatrical characters slip into melodramatic mannerisms, or the occasional measured pause to allow a joke to sink in, or the flash of panic in Ron Cook's eyes when someone asks the landlady to bring the grandfather in, are all wholly in the spirit of the play. Indeed, they're a large part of the fun.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Trelawny of The Wells - Donmar 2013  

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