Review: Trelawny of the Wells, by Arthur Wing Pinero (& Patrick Marber), at the Donmar Warehouse

The Trelawny of the Wells company. Photo Johan Persson

The Trelawny of the Wells company. Photo Johan Persson

Within a few seconds of the performance starting, I knew I was going to love Joe Wright’s production of Trelawny of the Wells. The set, with the simplicity and elegance of a puzzle box, is a pleasure to look at, and the first few moments of the production are so joyously startling that, as a calling card, are hard to beat. If that’s me being uncritical, so be it. Some plays are meant to make you happy and on the evidence of this production, I don’t see why I should resist it.

The story touches on things I love: it’s a play about actors. And eventually a play within a play. In 150 years, few things have changed: actors are still gypsies, a little bit touched, envied, loved, disrespected, outrageous, generous and petty in the same breath and looking for a way out. Rose Trelawny is the brightest most talented star of her company but is giving theatre up for the love of a young man from an aristocratic family. Two worlds are set on a collision course.

Anyone who saw Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina will experience a sense of familiarity. Some scenes melt into each other, and a scene change at the first half is of such beauty that I wanted to see it again and again. The artificiality of the stage doesn’t so much contrast with real life as it shallows it. Wright strikes a perfect balance between a magic box that opens up with the deftest of touches and a story that needs little help to engage.

The warmth and wit of the language are evident in every scene. I didn’t know Pinero’s text before this production and Patrick Marber’s “respectful ornamentations” feel nothing but an organic part of the play.

Fittingly for a play about actors, the performances are the trump card. Once in a while you see an actor having so much fun that any resistance is futile. Ron Cook gets the plumpest of roles and saying anything more would spoil it. His performance is full of imaginative juxtaposition and one of the funniest moments involves nothing more than him being on stage and the audience’s knowledge of what is to come. He is also very moving: as sir William Gower, the grumpiest of men, transforms in the thinking of his grandson and the heartfelt memories of Edmund Kean performing Richard III – his impersonation is a joy and any play that mentions Edmund Kean gets my vote. Amy Morgan as Rose has both the warmth and radiance the role needs, Aimee-Ffion Edwards steals every scene she is in, and Daniel Kaluuya grounds the play with earthy intelligence. Daniel Mays, all gangly legs and strutting, combines peacocky delusion with something more tender and vulnerable.

It’s very funny and a little bit sad. Like real life. Only better.

Revstan shares her review in her blog, beware, it contains spoilers.

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