Trelawny of the Wells
Cheeky: Joe Wright's highly enjoyable revival of Arthur Wing Pinero's hymn to the changing theatre starts, bizarrely, with Charley's Aunt climbing out of a wicker basket. It's Ron Cook as Mrs Mossop, a fussing landlady in an actors' lodging house in Clerkenwell.
In the second act, Cook reappears as a crusty old vice-chancellor, Sir William Gower, in Cavendish Square, presiding over the mortuary-like silence descending on Rose Trelawny's prospective marriage to his grandson; she's left the theatre for love, but will she return?
In the third act, Cook meets himself coming back as his other character in a brilliant sleight of costume; and in the fourth, he finally caves in to theatrical life and helps sponsor a new play.
It is 20 years since London had, as it happens, two productions of this glorious Victorian drama, one in the West End, one at the National (with a luminous young Helen McCrory as Rose). The new Rose, Amy Morgan, interestingly suggests that a dull spell with the almost-in-laws deepens her spiritual reservoir, and changes her accent.
A funny play about actors is always popular, but one which charts changes in fashion and style is rare; Trelawny is an historical document, and Wright (whose parents founded - his mother still makes puppets - the Little Angel marionette theatre in Islington, hard by Sadler's Wells) expands the metaphor of transition with brilliant doubling in his cast and clever text-tweaking by Patrick Marber.
The author of Dealer's Choice has great fun with the whist scene. Elsewhere, small roles disappear, new gags come in (though I'm not very happy with "I'll thank you not to fiddle with my ornaments"), and designer Hildegard Bechtler has wittily evoked three different venues with backdrops, Ionic pillars, painted swags, wooden boards and footlights across the front of the stage.
The central Buttons-style figure is the new dramatist Tom Wrench, hopelessly in love with Rose, but resigned to writing a play that changes the landscape and reunites Rose with her upper class beau, Arthur (Joshua Silver), who, in turn, has forsaken Cavendish Square for an acting apprenticeship in the provinces.
Daniel Kaluuya is a conspicuously black, touching and discreetly dignified Wrench, but he doesn't break your heart (who could?) in the way Robert Stephens did at the National four decades ago, any more than Aimeé-Ffion Edwards rivals Maggie Smith's despatch of the line, "Ooh, that's a rotten part..." when her beloved Gadd is fobbed off with the Demon of Discontent in the pantomime.
Wright's production treads a perilous line between affection and send-up, but Daniel Mays hilariously rescues the self-trumpeting Gadd from antiquated bravura, and Maggie Steed delivers a splendid double of a wheelchair-bound aunt and a gesticulating old actress.
As the latter, she is down-graded from leading roles to wardrobe duties; while her husband, the splendidly orotund Peter Wight, is given a minor part in the new drama ("Do you think you could get near it?" Steed asks, chin up, facing the future).
Wright's last film, Anna Karenina, was a brilliantly theatrical triumph until the last half hour, when the acting gave out; that doesn't happen here, though the emotional undertow is far less powerful than would be ideal. The sentimental songs are well done, though only Jamie Beamish as a stalwart Wellsian (as well as tooth-jutting chump and lunatic stage-manager) has a good singing voice.
Susannah Fielding swans elegantly around in green silk as the upmarket actress, Imogen Parrott, and capering Fergal McElherron scores a bull's-eye as the company comedian Augustus Colpoys. The gypsies win over the dullards, and not even grumpy Grandpa is immune to the call of the wild; when reminded of Edmund Kean, Cook's Sir William goes slightly silly, as indeed he should.