REVIEW: Accolade, St James Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Rona (Abigail Cruttenden), Will (Alexander Hanson) and Ian (Sam Clemmett) in Accolade. Photo by Mark Douet. St James Theatre
Rona (Abigail Cruttenden), Will (Alexander Hanson) and Ian (Sam Clemmett) in Accolade. Photo by Mark Douet.

St James Theatre
18 November 2014
4 Stars

You can imagine the pitch for the commission now. A topical contemporary drama. Promiscuity. Celebrities. A peer. Swingers. Orgies. Underage girls. The establishment brought down by the working class. Blackmail. A shattered marriage. Tests of loyalty. The court of public opinion. In the post-Saville/Harris/Clifford era, in the time beyond the Leveson Inquiry, why wouldn’t a theatre company commission such a play?

Except that Accolade, now playing at the St James Theatre and directed by Blanche McIntyre, a play which deals with all of those matters in a concise, remarkable and insightful way, was written by Emlyn Williams in 1950. Apart from the period in which it is set, Accolade deals with all the relevant issues as if it was written yesterday. Technology improvements aside, what happens in Williams’ 64 year old play is as relevant, disturbing and confronting now as it must have been then.

It’s a play about the edges of respectability, about the line between what can be ignored and what can’t be, about the price that fame brings with it, especially the insatiable interest of the press and the unavoidable attention of enemies who seek to bring down those who have the fame they seek. McIntyre directs with careful, thorough assuredness, avoiding the easy trap of treating the material like the melodrama it could so easily become, preferring instead to focus on true and believable characterisation and detailed, intimate, and utterly believable situations and exchanges.

Will Trenting is a famous author, a Nobel laureate, someone who has always bucked against the trends of the Establishment. He is also addicted to promiscuous sex. He meets and marries Rona who accepts his hand knowing of his Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde nature. He hides nothing from her. They are happy; he is wildly successful. They have a son, Ian, whom both adore, a house in Regent’s Park, a circle of friends with impeccable social connections.

Trenting is offered a peerage. Despite his own misgivings, he accepts because he knows the honour would thrill his wife. To compensate, away from the family, he holds a private party, invites his swinger friends and has a fabulous night. When the peerage is announced, his wife and friends are thrilled, his son proud. But then the trouble starts. Someone took photographs of the orgy and they are being circulated, discussed. And one of the women there turns out to be only 14. Blackmail and the complete undoing of Trenting’s life seems inevitable.

How Williams plays out the consequences of Trenting’s actions, his life of outward deception contrasted between the total honesty man and wife share, raises quite remarkable questions and makes for fascinating drama. McIntyre’s excellent cast make every moment count.

Alexander Hanson has never been better than he is here; it’s a complete, multi-faceted, and intelligent performance. The sense of the libertine is constant throughout, equally as persistent and plain as his devotion to his wife and child. He just loves sex with strangers and the dark side of life that comes with that. Trenting thinks that because he has been honest about his needs, his proclivities, that he needs fear nothing and Hanson shows all of this complexity, easily and stylishly.

Equally, though, Trenting shares naivety with his son; he is unprepared for the consequences of accepting the status of Peer, unbelieving that anyone could criticise him given his honesty to his wife. Again, over a series of scenes, Hanson peels back the layers of Trenting’s comfort, exposing the raw, instinctive heart of the man. His horror at the revelation of the young girl’s age is as palpable, as wholly felt, as the agony he experiences when confessing his misdeeds to his adoring son. It is an astonishing performance.

Abigail Cruttenden matches him every step of the way, providing a portrait of a loving, cheerful middle class woman, propelled to the lofty heights of Lady only to have her world shatter around her. Moving, graceful, tenacious and luminous, Cruttenden is superb. Her confrontation with her best friend in the second Act is magnificently done and moves the spotlight, shining it into an uncomfortable corner of harsh truth. She is neither mawkish not sentimental, but gloriously human and completely real.

Completing the Trenting family is Sam Clemmett, as Ian, the very bookish, very open, but very unworldly, 15 year old son. Clemmett is a joy, full of enthusiasm and boyish excess, precocious and intriguing. The scene between he and Hanson at the play’s climax is pitch-perfect. He has that ability to make you believe he is absolutely the product of Hanson and Cruttendon; he assumes characteristics of both in a truly winning performance. His incomprehension that his father could do anything seriously wrong is conveyed in clear terms; his inquiry as to whether or not his father has been “speculating inadvisedly” is hilarious, springing, as it does, from total trust and innocence.

Bruce Alexander’s Daker, the father of the underage girl involved in the orgy, is a study in bitterness, envy and opportunism. He seeks to blackmail Trenting, not for money, but for a job, a step up on the ladder of upwards mobility. Alexander is superb, wringing every second of interest out of this most ghastly of men: he cares not for his daughter; he seeks merely to gain revenge on a man who was once honest about Daker’s novelist ambitions, a man who has fame and prosperity where Daker has poverty and alcohol. Petty and perfidious, Alexander’s Daker is terrific.

As, indeed, is everyone in this perfectly cast ensemble. Daniel Crossley is completely at ease as Albert, the wide-boy Trenting took a chance on years earlier and who now serves as his protective private secretary and fourth family member, a brother of kinds to each member of the Trenting family. Watchful, patient and poised, Crossley is ideal as Albert. Jay Villiers, Trenting’s publisher, Thane, encapsulates deliciously the notion of a man born with a sterling silver harpoon inserted as his spine: sharp, cold, calculating but loyal; a moody, finely honed turn. Villier’s quiet acceptance that he might not have “lived” is sobering indeed.

Claire Cox’s Marion, on the other hand, personifies “what is acceptable and what is not”. A friend when the champagne is flowing and the Palace is calling, but not so much when scandal hits hard. The scene where Cruttenden’s Rona questions Marion’s moral certitude is a true highlight here, not the least because Cox convincingly conveys Marion’s incomprehension that any breach of society rules could be acceptable. Cox’ tearful despair rings true in every respect.

As Harold and Phyllis, the married couple who share Trenting’s tastes for sexual excitement, Jay Taylor and Olivia Darnley are inspired. Particularly Alexander, who is the blackest villain of the piece yet imbues Harold with such easy, sensual charm, and a touch of underlying unpredictability, that he is difficult not to like. Darnley’s honest, open appeal is plain; she gives Phyllis a winning personality and it is easy to see why this couple is a hit at clandestine orgies. Most importantly, though, they wholly convince as a devoted couple willing to live life to the full.

The clever set design from James Cotterill (a library and home office/lounge) permits a sense of fame and society as well as claustrophobia – as the play moves inexorably on, you almost feel the book-laden walls closing in on Trenting, mirroring the way his book-laden fame is costing him dearly. Cotterill’s choice of costumes, too, is impeccable, drenched in appropriate style.

It’s an absorbing and sometimes shocking piece of theatre. Williams does not shy away from the central horror of Trenting’s involvement with the underage girl and he looks at the many moral questions with scalpel like precision. No doubt this is partly because the play was meant as a coded defence of Williams’ own bisexuality. In many ways, Williams saw the future of tabloid media frenzy, of revenge through public reporting, more clearly than some see that reality now.

Interestingly, in Williams’ day, the notion that a peerage might be revoked for scandal was not, apparently, a possible or probable one. And, as no one asks “Are we meant to never read your books again?”, neither was the concept that literature or art should be condemned because of a transgression of the law by the author or artist. Times have definitely changed. See this play and decide for yourself whether they have changed for the better.

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