Accolade (St James Theatre)
Blanche McIntyre directs Emlyn Williams’ tale of sex, scandal and blackmail
Three years ago at the tiny Finborough, Blanche McIntyre's revival of a forgotten 1950 play by Emlyn Williams – flagged up in Michael Billington's State of the Nation — about the exposure of a paedophile novelist on the day of his knighthood seemed a tasty contribution to the on-going sideshow of retrospective vengeance in the celebrity culture.
To a large extent, it still is, but the wider open spaces of the still intimate St James also expose the stilted, old-fashioned writing, the far too long build-up, not a patch on Rattigan at his best, and the rather sickly justification, at the centre of the play, for Will Trenting's double life.
He's beautifully, and understatedly played, Will, by Alexander Hanson, a real stylist of an actor. His defence for unwittingly debauching the teenager in an East End brothel is that the girl looked at least 24 years old and that, even if she wasn't, his life-style choice of deception and predatory indulgence was otherwise okay.
It's okay, too, with his wife (sympathetically, if wetly, played, as required, by Abigail Cruttenden) and okay, eventually, with his irritating young son (irritatingly played by an over-age Sam Clemett). It's not okay, however, with the girl's father, a slimeball called Daker, played like a travesty of Shaw's Alfred Doolittle by Bruce Alexander, whose prosecution is fuelled by professional envy (the poor wretch can't get published; he embraces, almost indecently, a rack of Will's books) as well as the drinks trolley.
Dirty pictures and blackmail come into this dilemma for Will, who's supported also by his publisher who rejoices in the throwback name of Thane Lampeter and is played by Jay Villiers as someone you could trust your life with, and your manuscript, as long as he was on your side. The incursion of East End denizens Jay Taylor and Olivia Darnley is faintly embarrassing, but very well done.
The show is a credit to the Stage One new producers initiative – in this instance, the beneficiary is Nicola Seed Productions – and James Cotterill's semi-circular book-case design, with hidden doors, works a treat, appropriately flattered by Peter Mumford's lighting.
I thought the play was a stunning rediscovery at the Finborough, an intriguing statement of the playwright's dual personality as a conflicted bisexual in a stable and supportive heterosexual marriage. I still do. But there are certain moments that need more highlighting – not least the brave facing of the mob at a Regent's Park window and the logic behind anyone wanting to go and live in Guernsey.