Patrick Hamilton was a British playwright and novelist whose best-known plays are rather effective but hugely old-fashioned thrillers such as Rope (made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock) and Gaslight (also filmed, starring Ingrid Bergman and so effective that gaslighting has become a description for a certain type of mental abuse).
His novels, including the best-known Hangover Square, have a more humane, meditative tone and The Slaves of Solitude has many admirers, including the playwright Nicholas Wright who has now adapted it for the stage.
Set in a boarding house in Henley on Thames in 1943, it focuses on a group of refugees from the war. Its heroine, Miss Roach, blasted out of her flat by the Blitz, finds herself measuring out her days alongside two elderly spinsters, a retired comedian and the intemperate and cruel Mr Thwaites, who taunts her for her Russian sympathies and makes her life a misery. The arrival of new blood in the form of an American GI who has an affair with the prim and proper Miss Roach ("I do have a first name, but I don’t encourage people to use it," she explains to her suitor) and a German émigré Vicki Kugelmann perilously alters the delicate balance of her existence.
Wright admits he has increased the drama of the novel, and he has made the GI black as well as American. But neither change actually raises the temperature of the piece, which proceeds at its own stately and not always involving pace under Jonathan Kent‘s direction.
Tim Hatley helps things along with a sensational naturalistic set which uses a sideways swipe to switch scenes with fluent beauty, working like a magnetic drawing board as it wipes one scene out so the next can emerge, moving effortlessly from the boarding house with its lines of tables, to a wood-lined pub to the river bank where Fenella Woolgar falls into the arms of Daon Broni's dashing but drunken Lieutenant.
Woolgar exactly captures both Roach’s essential longing to live and the way in which her English reserve stops her from ever fully expressing her feelings. Clive Francis is wonderfully repellent as Mr Thwaites, a man who mangles the English language ("the damsel does not offend the orb of optical vision") in an attempt to put a patina of civilisation on the feral nature beneath. As Vicki, Lucy Cohu rustles up seductive power and the capacity to annoy almost simultaneously.
You feel themes emerging: the difference between survivors and victims, the way the war highlights all that is worst about English life, the impotence of women to act. But for all the effort lavished upon it, the underlying passion never breaks through the chilly surface restraint Nothing really seems to be at stake. As a play, the story never finds the theatrical power or inspiration to take flight. I spent most of the evening wondering why I wasn’t just at home reading the book.
The Slaves of Solitude runs at Hampstead Theatre until 25 November.