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The Living Room

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Grahame Greene's first play is 60 years old, but a period piece of such power and warped Catholic emotional intensity that not even the loss of lighting for the first act at a weekend matinée - restored by satanic intervention, surely, so that we could fully appreciate the mess God had made of things - could shake our faith in the actors.

This speaks volumes for Tom Littler's riveting production, which is far superior to the one and only West End revival (in 1987) which, I confidently predicted, would consign the play to the bookshelves; mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Instead, the love triangle of a Catholic teenager, Rose Pemberton (the role that made Dorothy Tutin's name in 1953), the married executor of her mother's will, and his desperately dependent wife, seems all too convincingly familiar; it's hard to think of another modern British play that is so truthfully outspoken about lust, guilt and adultery.

The orphaned Rose (ardently played by a willowy, tenacious newcomer, Tuppence Middleton), has been consigned to a dusty old house occupied by two ancient aunts and their brother, a crippled priest (Christopher Timothy) with an off-duty store of confessional-box wit and wisdom.

This he bestows benignly on both Rose and her middle-aged lover, who, this being Greeneland, just happens to be a psychology lecturer, and a very well played one by a carnally obsessive Christopher Villiers. The old aunts - a whimsically terrifying Caroline Blakiston and a no-nonsense, interfering Diane Fletcher - have closed all the rooms in the house visited by death.

In his 1953 review, Kenneth Tynan objected to the outcome, saying that Greene, having tied a modern Catholic knot, cut it with an old-fashioned theatrical axe. I don't think we are so conscious of Victorian melodrama in the background; we see, perhaps more clearly, Greene's point about the suffocating properties of religious fundamentalism and the potential for destruction in everyday piety.

The frankness with which Middleton's Rose speaks throughout is still shocking and refreshing. And the scene she plays with Emma Davies' flame-haired, childless and suicidal Mrs Dennis (all the more tragically effective for being so palpably attractive) is a corker.

In another example of acuity in the detail, Timothy's helpless and derelict cleric only wears a dog collar when he can do nothing to save anyone. As we know all too well in the Catholic Church today, a floored priest is almost as common a phenomenon as a flawed one.

- Michael Coveney


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