mon 22/07/2024

Accolade, Theatre Royal Windsor review - orgy-loving knight makes for topical pre-election drama | reviews, news & interviews

Accolade, Theatre Royal Windsor review - orgy-loving knight makes for topical pre-election drama

Accolade, Theatre Royal Windsor review - orgy-loving knight makes for topical pre-election drama

Vintage Emlyn Williams play asks pokey questions about private-public tolerance

Family man in a dirty mac: Honeysuckle Weeks and Ayden Callaghan in Emlyn Williams's AccoladeImages Jack Merriman

Times change, people don't. Does a knighthood sit well on a man who shags anonymous strangers in the Blue Lion out of hours?

Emlyn Williams played his own fruity lead when his play Accolade premiered in 1950 - Bill Trenting, a hugely successful writer of seamy bestsellers who (improbably) is about to be knighted and (still more improbably) won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but who will be publicly exposed for his double life enjoying promiscuous stranger-sex in Rotherhithe bars, if he doesn't pay his blackmailer. 

Sir William, as everyone must now get used to calling him, is on arguably stable ground when he contends that his visits to the Blue Lion are all about copy for his lauded novels. But not once it's alleged that he had an active encounter in a corner of the bar with a girl who despite the slap and fox fur was 14 years old.

Sir William admits only to being fooled. And if you don't find lines of modern faces floating in front of you, from Prince Andrew to Kevin Spacey to a dozen "naughty Tories" (as one MP recently described himself), you haven't been reading the papers. The play's topicality is made yet more mischievous by the general election declaration just as Sean Matthias's new touring production for the late Bill Kenwright launched at Windsor Theatre Royal, and the lemming rush of embarrassed MPs for exits and of journalists to social media to vet their wouldbe successors. 

First question - how will it deal with the vast changes in social morality about sexuality over the past 75 years? The play gives hardly a thought to the alleged child victim, and evidently #MeToo and LGB, let alone TQIA+, make it virtually impossible now to share the horror that polite postwar society felt about deviation from its strict norms.

But Accolade isn't arguing about the morality of a double-life and how it's perpetrated. It's about the eyes on the perp - his family's, his friends', his peers', the media's. And all of that jeopardy remains unchanged, and makes the play resonate still. 

Even when there's a hole at the heart of its casting, which is the bland and stilted Trenting of Ayden Callaghan (an Emmerdale and Hollyoaks favourite). Unvarying in his inflection throughout, he's the equivalent of a lightweight beige mac, repelling every potential imaginative suggestion like rain off an impermeable, leaving no trace. For me his implausibility damages the play's premise and the production's potential impact (pictured below: Ayden Callaghan's Trenting confronted by Narinder Samra's blackmailing Daker).

Ayden Callaghan and Narinder Samra in AccoladeMatthias's casting direction is the more mysterious because the play is less a morality play than a character study, and it's about the gripping theatre of life within which we move about, and the unpredictability of the gazes upon us, at home and out in the street, as we try to control our own public story. Trenting has a lot of angles, being the creation and alter ego of Williams, the energetically theatrical actor, bushy-browed world tourer and active bisexual. Dullness is not to be expected from a provocateur who investigated criminal minds and imagined the death of the entire royal family in a freak accident for his final novel.

Trenting, after all, is the Nobel laureate novelist who somehow combines raunchy lowlife content and high-toned prose like a modern Dickens (Williams's hero), and also the Jekyll and Hyde personality whose chiaroscuro preference does not repel his deceptively posh wife, Rhona - a very charming and attractive performance by Honeysuckle Weeks. Callaghan gives no plausibility to either, nor any flash of authentic camaraderie with his uninhibited Rotherhithe friends, the partying couple Phyllis and Harold who somehow make money from their all-night orgies to go home and spend on their beloved young daughter (and that's an interesting moral topic left by the by). 

Honeysuckle Weeks and Louis Holland in AccoladeAround the matte Callaghan, though, there's a fine brown wood and old leather Edwardian library and ideal Fair Isle and wool pleating by Julie Godfrey, there's an ensemble particularly strong on the female side, and an intriguing darker psychological edge pointing to the underwritten role of Trenting's 14-year-old son added by his silent drawing of curtains across scenes, or appearing spotlit in snatched dream sequences of unspecifically disturbing sound and light scapes by David Gregory and Nick Richings. The part is effectively played by Louis Holland (pictured above right, with Honeysuckle Weeks), much too old, really, but it's an inverse parallel, if you like, to Trenting's supposed deception into believing a 14-year-old girl was 10 years older.

Sara Crowe is her usual fun in a throwaway role as Rhona's squiffy best friend, and though Sarah Twomey's jolly Phyllis gives no clues to her promiscuous nocturnal occupation at the Blue Lion, her performance conceals in an intriguing way, unlike Callaghan's Trenting (pictured below left, with Gavin Fowler)

Gavin Fowler and Sarah Twomey as Harold and Phyllis in AccoladeOn the other hand, Narinder Samra is an exhibitionist villain, purportedly the child victim's father, emitting the  proprietoriness of a bailiff come to size up the value of the prize, running his hands with relish over Trenting's possessions, sobbing heartily about his child's vulnerability. But Daker is more her pimp than her protector, since she is apparently a Blue Lion regular. For all we know, she could be an agent in an entrapment business. Or not.

So the play has a lot of content and quality to commend it, and shows the Bill Kenwright production company continuing to push to the bolder side of commercial discretion after its founder's death last autumn. Emlyn Williams would surely have been overjoyed at the coincidence of the election period with its tour, and one hopes the performing will quickly seize its opportunities.

  • Accolade at Windsor Theatre Royal till 15 June, then touring till 13 July to Cambridge, Guildford, Bath and Richmond
Williams would surely have been overjoyed at the coincidence of the election period with its tour

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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