Trelawny of the Wells

Arthur Wing Pinero, with some most respectful additions and ornamentation by Patrick Marber

Donmar Warehouse

From 15 February 2013 to 13 April 2013

Review by Philip Fisher

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The suspicion is beginning to grow that Josie Rourke is using the Donmar as a means of sharing her favourite plays of all time with the world. If that is the case, we must all be grateful that her taste is good and rather eclectic.

Her selection of director on this occasion can be seen as high risk since, while Joe Wright has earned his spurs as Keira Knightley's film director of choice with hits such as Atonement, Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice to his name, any prior stage credentials do not even rate a mention in the programme.

On this occasion, he pairs up with Hildegard Bechtler who catches the spirit of the piece with the simplest of period stage designs and some overly silly props during an opening that gets closer to pantomime than might be advisable.

Pinero is currently enjoying a mini revival, following John Lithgow's appearance as The Magistrate at the National. His brand of humour may seem old fashioned but it is indubitably very funny, especially when given a mild modern makeover (115 years after the event) by Patrick Marber.

Like A Chorus Line or Noises Off, this is a chance to see behind the scenes and witness the agonies and ecstasies of performing for a living.

Wright's production is significantly different from London's last sight of the play at the tiny Finborough some eight years ago.

Indeed, early on there is a question about whether he might not quite have got the balance right between two conflicting imperatives.

This production really plays up the comic elements with deliberately bad, melodramatic acting. It is only as the evening develops that the love stories come out, two between men and women and more significantly, one slightly bittersweet affair between Arthur Wing Pinero and the theatre.

Almost every line seems to pay homage, if sometimes wryly, to actors and their profession, especially the second-raters who somehow scratched together a bare living despite a distinct lack of talent.

The central story features Miss Rose Trelawny played by Amy Morgan and the love of her life, Joshua Silver's Arthur Gower.

For love, she gives up the stage and endures a truly horrible time at the hands of raging Ron Cook (who is equally brilliant in drag when he gets to play an ageing thespian hanger-on) and Maggie Steed. They respectively play his snobbish grandfather, Sir William Gower and Great Aunt Trafalgar (inevitably born in 1815) respectively.

A brief glimpse of gentility and lost passion may repulse the former actress but it certainly dulls her talent to such a degree that when she returns to the stage, she doesn't even have enough left to mix with these poor troupers.

They are a rum bunch, with Daniel Mays outstandingly funny as Ferdinand Gadd, a Wildean poseur who marries the indisputably keen Avonia Budd, enthusiastically played by Aimeé-Ffion Edwards.

Ultimately, it takes a wannabe playwright and aspiring producer, Daniel Kaluuya and Susannah Fielding as Tom Wrench and Imogen Parrott to bring the evening to a happy and unexpectedly touching climax.

The remaining players also make the most of their opportunities, with Jamie Beamish making each of his three contrasting roles memorable.

Trelawny of the Wells is a light comedy with lots of heart that demonstrates a deeply embedded love of all things theatrical. It helps that there are a couple of very funny moments, inevitably leading one to wonder whether they are be work of Pinero or Marber?

Either way, this 2½ hour long "original comedietta to in four acts" is rather fun and should appeal to the Donmar's regular habitués.