Agnes Colander: An Attempt at Life (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Posted: February 16, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Harley Granville Barker      Director: Trevor Nunn


Harley Granville Barker was one of the leading lights of British theatre in the Edwardian era and works of his, such as The Voysey Inheritance and Waste, still appear regularly today. Therefore, it would seem highly unlikely that a play written by him in 1900 would have to wait until now to receive its World Premiere, but such is the case here.

Agnes Colander: An Attempt at Life languished in the British Library for more than a century until Richard Nelson’s revised version was brought to the stage by director Trevor Nunn at the Theatre Royal Bath and this is a slightly modified version of that production. Naomi Frederick plays the title character as a wavering free spirit. Three years after leaving her adulterous husband, Agnes still questions whether she values independence over security and she finds neither sympathy nor encouragement in the society of her age.

Agnes works as a painter, befriending Otto (Matthew Flynn), a fiery fellow artist. “I know only three male artists better than you” he tells Agnes, expecting her to take his misogynist condescension as a compliment. In a moment of self-doubt, Agnes sees herself as “an extra rib, dressed”. The play was written some two decades after Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, so themes of female liberation were not new to theatre in 1900, but Granville Barker seems to be continually reassuring himself, through his hesitant characters, that he is not being too bold.

A second suitor emerges in the form of naive young banker, Alex, who follows Agnes to the retreat which she has found with Otto in Normandy. Harry Lister Smith plays Alex as if he is a simpering boy, making it obvious that he would be the more malleable of the two rivals and giving Agnes a clear choice. Does she want to control Alex, or to be controlled by Otto? Perhaps Granville Barker is showing prescience in discussing gender role reversal, but he puts it into a contemporary context by bringing in Emmeline (Sally Scott), a prim and proper widow with a mischievous streak.

Running at around 90 minutes, plus an interval, the play gives an interesting insight into the formation of modern feminist ideas. After a tepid first act during which any form of dramatic tension proves elusive, Nunn’s production livens up after the interval and, towards the end, rather surprisingly, the director finds some comedy (hopefully intentional). Leaving aside its curiosity value, Agnes Colander… is no lost masterpiece; more it is a tentative work by a writer who was as uncertain about what the new century would bring as are his characters.

Performance date: 15 February 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.