No, this isn’t the satire by Bernard Shaw set in the cabinet office of Number Ten, though there are odd moments when I wished it were. Instead, Amy Rosenthal’s new comedy is a study in friendship and communal living in Cornwall in 1916. D H Lawrence and Frieda have invited Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry to come and live next door.
Murry had met Lawrence in 1914 but didn’t marry Mansfield until 1918, and the heart of the play is poised somewhere between the publication of The Rainbow and the writing of Women in Love, a novel (and Ken Russell film) directly alluded to when Ed Stoppard as the bearded wonder strips to the buff and invites Nick Caldecott as Murry – easily the most attractive, interesting performance of the night -- to express his manly side and wrestle with him in front of the cottage fire.
While being diligent with her sources, including Mansfield’s wonderful journals, Rosenthal – daughter of the peerless late Jack and his wife Maureen Lipman – has avoided many of the pitfalls of domestic strife among the famous by writing strongly and sensibly about the characters, so that you don’t feel too bludgeoned by heritage-style chit-chat.
There’s a bad moment, though, when Tracy-Ann Oberman as Frieda reads two lines of the new novel and acidly remarks that a book about women in love is really all about the men. And Paul Burgess’s design is an over-priced, over-literal, off-putting construction of plastic bricks, turrets and garish colours with a token view of the wild-flower cliff vistas you wish engulfed the whole stage.
Oberman’s Frieda is a well-judged Jewish comic turn that suggests her lust for Lawrence was almost as keen as her taste for cream cakes, while Charlotte Emmerson’s chiselled Mansfield hints at the rough man’s pulling power and her own suicidal tendencies rooted in a peripatetic existence since leaving New Zealand.
Stoppard is a game and hearty Lawrence, spitting out his routine objections to the Bloomsberries at Garsington, but there’s something a bit “put on” about the performance. Clare Lizzimore’s production is good at the ingrown communal vision and invites comparison (unflattering, I’m afraid) with Bloody Poetry, Howard Brenton’s play about the Shelleys and Lord Byron on Lake Geneva at this address two decades ago.