You could say that Waste by Harley Granville Barker is exactly the sort of play the National Theatre should be doing, and Samuel West’s magisterial, superbly cast revival at the Almeida – the first in London since Peter Hall’s Old Vic version in 1997 – has the unmistakeable clamour of an Edwardian political classic pressing all the right contemporary buttons.
The story is that of a high flying lawyer and impassioned independent MP, Henry Trebell, striking a deal with a Tory government on a bill to disestablish the Church of England while falling hopelessly in love with the wife of an interned Sinn Fein activist. The bill will allow churches to be turned over to education; Trebell’s dalliance threatens Home Rule policy. Echoes here of Gladstone’s cabinet and the siren Kitty O’Shea.
West uses a synthesis of the banned 1907 version (abortion was the issue, not Home Rule, apparently) and the 1926 re-write first seen on the stage ten years later and revived by John Barton for the RSC in 1985 with Daniel Massey as Trebell and Judi Dench as Amy O’Connell.
The roles are now sulphurously occupied by Will Keen, bald and blazing, and the ever lustrous Nancy Carroll, the former obsessively dedicated to his cause until catastrophically ensnared by the latter’s sinuous charms, a vision of red-haired Irish loveliness in a modern hemline and a cloche hat.
Bruce Alexander played Amy’s incarcerated husband Justin O’Connell in that RSC production and pops up here as a political trimmer, Gilbert Wedgewood, while O’Connell himself, appearing after the tragedy in the abortion clinic, is played with a fine, banked-down fury by Patrick Drury.
Even though the detail of the third act smoking room carve-up is hard to follow, the mechanics are rivetingly exposed by Hugh Ross as the smoothly calculating PM, Peter Eyre as a vulpine ecclesiastical fixer in the Lords and Michael Thomas as George Farrant, a key sounding board in the cabinet. The air crackles with wit and mischief from the moment we meet the Tory ladies, led by Helen Lindsay’s sedate old dowager, gathered round the grand piano in the Farrants’ country house.
Jessica Turner is the determined hostess and Phoebe Nicholls the sandpaper dry Frances Trebell, performances that go a long way to explain why Trebell himself hasn’t kissed a woman in ten years. The production, handsomely designed by Peter McKintosh and beautifully lit by Guy Hoare, is full of such deepening touches, the overall atmosphere, political and personal, completely electrifying.