Review: Trelawny of the Wells

Trelawny of the… welllllll??????

Trelawny of the Wells by Arthur Wing Pinero
Canberra Repertory Society, Theatre 3
Directed by Tony Turner
29 March – 9 April
Book Tickets

Arthur Wing Pinero’s “Trelawny of the Wells” sounds like a long lost and lively gem of a play – a love letter to the boards, a rarely rendered romance, an early piece of meta-theatre full of charm and, at a point in time, I imagine, much of this would have been the case. However, despite some strong performances, it is obvious in Rep’s Trelawny that the gem’s vividness has faded.

This is historically significant stuff that should excite any theatre nerd: Rose Trelawny (Alessa Kron) is a renowned actress from the Wells theatre troupe in a time when high melodrama was the norm and, even though she is defined by her actor-gypsie life, she leaves for love, namely the young-but-from-old-money Arthur Gower (Henry Strand). Needless to say she can’t stand her new conservative patrician family and when she returns to the theatre Rose’s career has changed, as has her love life and so, it would seem, has the world of theatre as we see the beginnings of realism. Quite amazingly, Pinero not only reflects on the nature of theatre but he predicts what it would become.

I’d love to see a production of this where a bold playwright could completely rework the material (cutting overdrawn exposition in favour of character development) for modern sensibilities. The dramatic action of the play has much to offer and its sheer nostalgic charm deserves to breathe new life – I do wonder if that’s what Patrick Marber’s adaptation, produced in London in 2007, was.

However, this is a review and I will therefore turn my focus to the tackling of the material rather than the material itself.

My chief gripe with Tony Turner’s direction is that he has not created enough differentiation and distinction between the play’s tribes – the old school stagy stars, the arid aristocrats and the threadbare thespians that found their way to the new wave. As an audience, when we leave the folk from the Wells Theatre with Rose to arrive at the Gower’s refined drawing room, the class based and cultural differences should smack us in the face. If it doesn’t the play’s most interesting stuff, the stuff about theatre holding a mirror up to itself, the inevitable changing of the guard, and the fixed constraints of the English class system are lost, as is the play’s charm as those worlds collide and our characters battle, and of course, triumph over it.

Energy lacks in the exposition clad opening scene where, despite the best efforts of Elaine Noon’s Mrs Mossop at her gossipy best and Rob de Fries as the cheeky and charming Tom Wrench, it falls flat with missed cues and sterile staging. This scene should be bubbling with zest and zeal, full of larger than life personalities, loud and raucous like an 1860’s cast party you can’t quite remember and will never forget, but, as Rose leaves her friends at the end of the scene, we are truly ready to leave those at the Well’s as well and the impact this has on the rest of the show is, well, not good news.

Turner’s choice to create tableaux during the numerous asides and private conversations in of itself is not a bad one. However, pairing that with a lighting cue and possibly a sound one would have helped to focus the action and tie the convention together.

The design in general, given the demands of the show, is impressive in its execution. The costumes, set and set properties are all appropriate to time and overall the show looks nice. There is a stylistic opportunity missed by not showing the changes in location through distinct colour palate and aesthetic choices.

Slow set changes are excruciating and we all know that they are a sure fire way to brand your show as “amateur”. Here the expansive cast pile furniture onto the revolve, then exit, then the revolve does its thing, then the cast reenter and unpack for a new location. This is the sort of transition that should be seen as a creative opportunity rather than a more painful exercise in logistics than when you last moved house.

I have no problem with scene changes being done in full view of the audience but it needs to be performative. If Turner had employed some clever double casting it could be captivating to see change in location, change in social class, change of character, change – the very thing the play is all about – happen in a theatrical way before our eyes in ways that you can only do in theatre.

Jerry Hearn and Alice Ferguson as the older Gower’s do breathe life into the show as we arrive at their Cavendish Square home but this aptly and intentionally stale and stiff scene suffers from not being adequately set up. This is the case for many comic moments of the production – there is a setup and a payoff and here, often, the setup has fallen flat so that when characters from each world find themselves uncomfortably dropped into a new one, the laughs don’t come as thick as they might.

Similarly, this is the case for the well crafted and beautifully tender moments in the later parts of the play – Hearn’s reminiscing and reciting of seeing Edmund Kean’s Richard III, Ferdinand (Michael Kashkerian), the troupes serious actor, wrestling with his irrelevance and the final moments of Rose and Arthur reuniting mid-rehearsal – are all well performed and staged moments that at their best should make us do one of those goofy smiles, half laughing but with tears in our eyes, but without the high energy comic moments really firing the sentimentality doesn’t hit us that hard.

What Turner has successfully done is garnered some very accomplished performances from a few members of this cast of over twenty. Alessa Kron is perfect for Rose having the elegance in early scenes to be believable as a leading lady of the day and the vulnerability as she faces her crisis.

Jess Waterhouse’s Avonia Bunn has great energy vocally and often keeps scenes alive. Her passion for the world from which she comes is palpable. If anything she might tone it down in moments to show some light and shade and, at the risk of sounding prudish, she also needs to tone down the heavily contoured make-up. It is far too modern a look amongst her counterparts.

There is a lot of joy in a well-made-play, in its predictability it warms the heart as the loose ends are tied up, when we see those who should end up together despite the odds. However, to earn that heart fluttering moment delivery needs to tight and lively, characters defined and comic ‘bits’ well executed. This is not entirely the case in this production. Historically this play is fascinating, I only wish it had been produced with a sharper and somewhat bolder vision.

Chalk.

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