by Richard Nelson.

Hampstead Theatre Eton Avenue Swiss Cottage NW3 3EU To 7 April 2012.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mt Wed 2.30pm & Sat 3pm.
Audio-described 31 March 3pm.
Captioned 3 April.
Runs 1hr 50min No interval.

TICKETS: 020 7722 9301.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 7 April.

Biographical segment or use of a famous theatrical name?
What’s in a name? How much does it matter if a character is named after a long-dead person? No-one supposes the Queen Victoria or Florence Nightingale of Edward Bond’s Early Morning are recreating the live individuals’ behaviour. But with people less familiar, the scope for confusion increases.

Does it matter? Harley Granville Barker was a man of the theatre through-and-through. He created adventurous London repertory at the (Royal) Court, argued for a National Theatre, wrote large-scale plays and a series of Prefaces to Shakespeare combining practical theatre awareness with critical perception.

Yet he gave theatre up after marrying his second wife, an American heiress. He might have met her in 1916, when Richard Nelson’s new play finds him doodling midlife in Massachusetts.

Ben Chaplin has Barker’s strong, determined features, under an assertive wave of black hair. But this Barker is restless and purposeless, evading even the chance of an academic job. If that was the historical Barker (who was writing his own Farewell to the Theatre at the time) it was an atypical segment of his life.

Yet Nelson catches someone between playwright (the better-known plays had all been written) and theatre academic (the Prefaces came in the remaining 30 years of his life). But if the man who had effectively created Shaw’s reputation allowed the dismissive comment on Shaw made by Dickens recitalist Frank Spraight to pass unanswered, things must have been extremely bad.

Pacing and commenting, Jason Watkins’ Frank brings a slight lightness to a play cast into literal and atmospheric darkness by Rick Fisher’s lighting and Roger Michel’s production. Scenes of lassitude around a bench on a boarding-house lawn frame those at the refectory-style dining-room.

Gemma Redgrave’s landlady insists on a final straw of the dignity she once had by not accepting help from guests, while she fears her academic brother Henry is being set-up to fail in his production of Twelfth Night.

Failure, and escape, run through the play’s physical darkness. Dorothy’s table-laying is a rare sign of activity in a piece stronger on mood than action, without the Chekhovian subtlety to sustain the approach.

Harley: Ben Chaplin.
Dorothy: Jemma Redgrave.
Henry: Louise Hilyer.
George: Andrew Havill.
Beatrice: Tara Fitzgerald.
Frank: Jason Watkins.
Charles: William French.

Director: Roger Michell.
Designer: Hildegard Bechtler.
Lighting: Rick Fisher.
Sound: John Leonard.

2012-03-13 11:52:55

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