by William Douglas Home.
Finborough Theatre above The Finborough Wine Café 118 Finborough Road SW10 9ED To 24 August 2011.
Mon 7.30pm sold out. Extra matinee 24 Aug 3pm.
Runs 2hr 40min One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 847 1652 (24hr no booking fee).
Review: Timothy Ramsden 21 July.
Period-piece portraiture to be seen as well as is ever likely.
Though brother to a Conservative Prime Minister, playwright William Douglas-Home was something of a rebel, imprisoned for refusal to obey orders in World War II. Something of this emerges in his penultimate, 1987, play.
By then the playwright was in his mid-seventies, of an age with the subject he portrays, painter Augustus John – followed here from the mid-forties to the lip of the sixties, as he paints General Montgomery, fellow-artist Matthew Smith and Cecil Beaton.
It’s the death of Montgomery’s handsome young Colonel that sets John against war, eventually joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Other deaths surround the piece; John’s recently dead artist-sister Gwen; his first wife Ida, and Smith’s death during John’s own decline.
And there’s the implied death of his artistic gift, as John finds painting increasingly hard. There’s an asperity throughout the piece, but it grows from banter, with George Bernard Shaw bringing his lively wit and innocent arrogance to take Montgomery’s mind off being painted, through the genuine sympathy John and his long-term partner Dorelia (‘Dodo’) show for Smith, whom they coax from nihilistic misery, to the cutting insults traded with Beaton, the dandified society photographer and designer.
For three-quarters of its length the play comes up remarkably well, helped by the acting style the intimate Finborough encourages, enlivening what might seem starchily formulaic on a larger stage. And by Alex Marker’s unfussy direction and fine cast, Hayward Morse especially strong in his Montgomery (if not quite as abrupt as the original) morose then more sanguine Smith, and self-consciously elegant Beaton.
Kristin Milward distinguishes moments of genuine and forced cheer, of comfort for John and near-despair as Peter Marinker shows him declining into artistic frustration, and drink-sodden old age. If only Douglas-Home had stopped after the first glimpses of Beaton. Marker and Marinker cannot disguise the dramatic terrain’s increasingly over-trodden thinness. The hope of Matt Barber’s aspirant young artist and wit of David Gooderson’s blithely spirited, if appallingly whiskery Shaw seem far away.
What never falters is the visual sense – as a regular Finborough designer, Marker effortlessly creates an artistic milieu in its elegant untidiness.
Joe: Matt Barber.
Montgomery/Matthew Smith/Cecil Beaton: Hayward Morse.
Dorelia: Kristin Milward.
Augustus John: Peter Marinker.
George Bernard Shaw: David Gooderson.
Director/Designer: Alex Marker.
Lighting: Elliot Griggs.
Sound: Edward Lewis.
Composer: William Morris.