The title Farewell To The Theatre evokes Harley Granville-Barker’s own production. However, the play of the same name at the Hampstead theatre is something entirely different, offering an insight into the British playwright himself.
Barker is arguably something of an unsung hero in theatre but when you discover that he staged an astounding 57 productions in 14 years, this puts his incredible talent into perspective. What is even more astonishing is that only one of these productions was staged after the First World War. The war, it would seem, caused Barker to loose his great passion for theatre, acting, as David Jones puts it in the show’s programme, as “a great Berlin Wall between the two halves of [his] career.” It is this period of Barker’s life that Richard Nelson explores in his play.
In Farewell To The Theatre, Nelson presents a group of British expatriates, one of whom is Barker, living in Massachusetts; a situation that resembles Nelson’s own life as an American playwright often working in the UK. In fact, perhaps it is the affinity that both the writer and director Roger Michell have with Barker that makes this play work so well. After all, during his time at the RSC, Michell, like Barker, staged his fair share of Shakespearean masterpieces.
Ben Chaplin, with his dulcet tones and sarcastic wit, brings elements of Hugh Grant to his portrayal of the talented dramatist and, having separated from his wife with a new lady on the scene, Barker’s situation is not dissimilar to many of Grant’s famous on-screen characters. Barker’s quick witticisms are lost on the nervous Charles, a young college boy trying to make his way in the acting world played by William French, who makes his stage debut in this production. Intentional or not, his uneasiness and awkward pauses seem fitting for the role.
While Charles tries to advance his career, Beatrice (Tara Fitzgerald) is making advances of her own. Her irrational obsession adds a great deal of humour and pace to an otherwise melancholic production, which, despite being set in an academic, theatre-obsessed community, moves at a slower pace than most dramas.
Frank (Jason Watkins) is probably the play’s most endearing character. Not only can he memorise seven complete chapters of Dickens, but he can recite them, voices included, in a performance that is a show in itself. The morose Dorothy (Jemma Redgrave) does not have quite the same talent for storytelling, but Redgrave’s performance is strong and emotive.
All in all, Michell’s diverse cast creates an unquestionably enthralling production, even though the action takes place almost solely on benches. The play’s conclusion, however, sees a dramatic change of tempo, and as I, myself, bade farewell to theatre, I was left incredibly amused, if not slightly baffled, by this enormously different, quite frankly ridiculous, closing scene.