This review was originally written for the Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Middle class dramatists of the mid 20th Century were swept out of favour by the new wave created by John Osborne and others in the late1950s. However, now, with Noel Coward’s works rarely absent from our stages and with Terence Rattigan having been rehabilitated into mainstream theatre for some time, a fresh look at John Van Druten is long overdue. A well-received London production of London Wall set the ball rolling last year and, here, Anthony Biggs’ revival of Van Druten’s 1934 play is given added significance, because its themes tie in with the current commemorations for World War I. The opening scene takes place in 1934 in the London house of Naomi and her husband. It transpires that she is haunted by the wartime death of her fiancé Richard, a poet, and she has found, in her marriage to an older widower, a life of comfort and ease. They are joined by Leonard, an impassioned pacifist and by Naomi’s spinster sister, Mercia, who is scornful of the couple’s lifestyle, having chosen a path of duty after casting aside her own fiancé for being anti-war and therefore, in her view, pro-German. The play then moves to the sisters’ family home, a country vicarage, for scenes set in 1914 and 1916. Praise must be given here to designer Victoria Johnstone for creating not just one, but two detailed and realistic sets in Jermyn Street’s tiny space. Praise also to Sophie Ward who, as Naomi, handles the transitions between sophisticated, icy socialite and lovestruck, innocent young girl effortlessly. Similarly, Debra Penny (Mercia) convinces equally as a bitterly disillusioned middle-aged woman and as her younger self, making the mistakes that were to scar her life. As personified in the characters of Richard (Gabriel Vick), who dies in combat and Leonard (Max Wilson), who is stricken with tuberculosis, likening warfare and disease provides a recurring theme. Looked at from 80 years on, when the writer’s pacifist warnings have still not been heeded, their naiveté may be viewed with some cynicism. However, what is much more interesting is the way in which Van Druten, perhaps very daringly for the 1930s, chips away at the traditional wartime posturing of the British, questioning the values of patriotism, duty and religious teaching. The sisters’ parents, a clergyman and his wife (Patrick Drury and Alwyne Taylor), staunchly defend all these values, but they are always portrayed as old-fashioned and misguided. We return to the London house and to 1934 for a slightly disappointing final scene. Van Druten rightly shuns sentimentality in tying up loose ends, but he brings in an element of the supernatural which lends the play an unwelcome touch of melodrama. At this point, he repeats the same pacifist messages that we have already heard and then pushes them too hard, a flaw which is accentuated in this production when we are given an unnecessary reminder of what was to happen five years later. Otherwise, this is a solid, very well acted and commendable effort.
Performance date: 25 September 2014