‘Atonement’, ‘Pride & Prejudice’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ have made film director Joe Wright the go-to guy for classy literary adaptations. So here are two surprising things about his first theatre production: one, Keira Knightley isn’t in it; and two, it’s pretty dire.
The big problem with this new version of Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1898 romcom is Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1898 romcom. Playwright Patrick Marber, usually a dab hand at making moth-eaten classics into modern masterpieces, has added a smart retro-mockney veneer. But he can’t do anything with the fundamentally dated, coy and snobbish concerns of this ‘comedietta’, whose main purpose is to get a working girl (actress Rose Trelawny of Sadler’s Wells, hence the title) safely married to a chinless gent with a family pile in Mayfair.
A popular farce writer-turned-moralist whose plays pale into insignificance compared to his Norwegian contemporary Ibsen, Pinero was steeped in the world of London theatre. With its large supporting cast of threadbare actors, writers and impresarios, this light class comedy is largely an affectionate rogues gallery of the principal affectations of the day. These are fun parts for actors and Wright has employed a cool gang of talent with quirky faces – Mike Leigh regulars Daniel Mays and Ron Cook shine as a preposterous leading man and a perpetually apoplectic elderly judge.
But this is a sluggish, unfunny, awkwardly-staged turkey which has been overcooked by smart people who’ve made the same mistake that the playwright did: of falling in love with theatre and assuming that everyone else will love it all too, no matter how longwinded the luvvies or how dim the repartee.
‘It’s just like life,’ says actress Imogen (Susannah Fielding), as the leading couple kiss in the play-within-a-play which has (preposterously) reunited them. ‘No. It’s better’ adds Daniel Kaluuya’s playwright character, Tom. They’re both wrong: this farce about nothing is nothing like life, and it’s considerably worse. Caroline McGinn