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Review Round-up: It’s Waste Not, Want Not for West

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Actor-director Samuel West’s revival of Harley Granville Barker’s rarely seen Edwardian political drama Waste - a play once described by Sir Peter Hall as the greatest play about politicians since Shakespeare - opened last week (2 October 2008, previews from 25 September) at the Almeida Theatre, where it runs until 15 November (See News, 19 May 2008).

Originally banned by the censors when it was written in 1907, Waste wasn’t licensed until 1920 and didn’t reach the London stage until 1936, by which time Granville Barker had entirely re-written the dialogue.

The play looks at the scandal surrounding radical politician Henry Trebell, who soon finds his career and ideologies unravelling after conducting an affair with a married woman. Will Keen head a large ensemble cast that includes also Nancy Carroll, Peter Eyre, Phoebe Nicholls, Michael Thomas and.

Overnight and weekend critical reaction was almost unanimously euphoric, West’s revival receiving a slew of five-star ratings and no shortage of possible poster-quotes. Will Keen’s “marvellous” performance as Trebell was highlighted by all, though it was hard to find a weak link as critics lauded the “finest ensemble acting to be seen in London for ages”. It seems there can be little argument with the assertion that, with Waste, West has firmly established himself as a “director of the front rank”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “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 … 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 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.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (five stars) – “Lovers of good drama and politics junkies should flock to Samuel West\'s superb revival of Harley Granville Barker\'s play … Much the best scene in West\'s meticulous production is that which shows the Tory grandees struggling to suppress the scandal and rescue the endangered bill. Rarely in English drama do you see the workings of the establishment so nakedly exposed as these beleaguered toffs seek to silence the husband, a former Irish republican, of Trebell\'s mistress … Will Keen skillfully conveys the tragedy of Trebell: the sterility of a life in which principles take precedence over people. That is the ultimate waste, and its victims are eloquently represented by Nancy Carroll as his discarded lover and Phoebe Nicholls as his sister. You emerge wrung through from a play that is not only the source of much state-of-the-nation drama but also, I suspect, Granville Barker\'s own self-indictment.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “We\'ve known for some time that Sam West, an admirable actor, can also direct. That much was stirringly evident during his stint at the helm of the Sheffield Crucible. But in this past year, he has begun to establish himself as a director of the front rank … Waste is a remarkably astute and revealing political drama. It takes us into the cigar-wielding conclaves where fateful decisions are made and into the fierce but only partially functioning heart of an idealist of genius who is almost bound, given the nature of English public life, to wind up a failure … Portraying the central character, Will Keen is magnificent. There\'s a severe precision even in his dry banter. When his fingertips stroke his thighs with sexual tension, they do so in exact parallel lines ... With splendid cameos from the likes of Peter Eyre, Hugh Ross and Richard Cordery, the scenes of political calculation in drawing rooms and smoking rooms are a potent mix here of the ancestrally shrewd and the abjectly petty.”
    • Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times (four stars) – “Waste is certainly discursive by modern standards, but its vast, distinctly Shavian conversations are consistently engaging, surprising and witty, and Sam West’s confidently unhurried direction laudably eschews cutting them down to modern size … Will Keen is marvellous as Trebell, a riveting stage presence from his gleaming pate to his gleaming patent shoes, fixing Amy with his relentless basilisk stare, his thoughts visibly not on her suffering, but on his career … Among the Tory patriarchs, Peter Eyre, as Lord Cantilupe, has a Christmas-cake baritone that makes Keen’s Trebell sound weak and thin. You could listen to him reading out the EU constitution - sorry, reform treaty - and not get bored. Richard Cordery is a substantial Nicholas Soames type as Russell Blackborough and, wiliest and most smilingly saurian of all, there’s Hugh Ross as Cyril Horsham, a true Holy Fox.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (five stars) – “Samuel West\'s definitive production of this great Edwardian play by Granville Barker makes crystal clear the ease with which politicians, adulterous sex and forced resignation, the threat of scandal and the art of hypocrisy can all be linked together in a chain of consequences. That much has been well done in earlier revivals. West, though, manages something fresh and more exciting. He does not solely inspire the finest ensemble acting to be seen in London for ages. He unlocks the key to the behaviour of Waste\'s unmarried hero, Henry Trebell (Will Keen), a visionary politician who falls from grace to sexual disgrace … Trebell, whose flaw is to treat human beings like Amy as expendable objects, suffers nemesis - first his pioneering Church bill and then his life itself, sacrificed on the prim altar of respectability. To watch Keen and Nicholls is to experience theatre acting at its finest. Waste itself taxes, tests and stretches the mind, but what an overwhelming experience.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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