Which leading role was, bizarrely, first played by John Gielgud (in 1958) and later by Cliff Richard (in 1971)? The answer is James Callifer in Graham Greene’s The Potting Shed, not seen since that latter revival, newly and smartly directed by Svetlana Dimcovic at the Finborough.
It’s an odd, stilted play about the loss of faith and the mystery of love revolving around the death of an unseen atheist and cosmologist and the unlocked secret of what happened to young James in the potting shed.
James, played with the sort of sweaty urgency by Paul Cawley you can’t quite imagine in either Gielgud (who spoke to the actors as if he were tipping them, said Tynan in his famously sarcastic review) or Sir Cliff, is in a high old state. His dog is howling. He doesn’t know what love is. The family has kept him away from his father these past 15 years.
So he’s gate-crashed the wake to find some answers. Aided by his coolly inquisitive, 13-year-old niece – a really lovely performance by Zoe Thorne – he tracks down his whisky priest uncle (a not too dishevelled Martin Wimbush) in East Anglia and faces up to the truth about himself.
Dimcovic first put the piece on with much the same cast as a Sunday/Monday production last September. She has maintained the still, notably well-spoken dignity of that occasion in this modest upgrade which catches beautifully a sense of collapsing certainties, family skeletons skewered on psychiatry, the tragedy of suicide, and the challenge of a good marriage that’s gone wrong.
And the play seems so “distant” it gains a renewed merit and integrity, all of it strange, perhaps, most of it true. Cawley – who is certainly convincing as a dead-end journalist in Nottingham — is strongly supported by Eileen Battye as the family matriarch, Charlie Roe as one of the old boy’s disciples, Cate Debenham-Taylor as his bemused, sexually frustrated ex-wife and David Gooderson as the psychiatrist, playing cleverly, and touchingly, against Teutonic type.