Helmer Joe Wright’s self-consciously artificial film take on “Anna Karenina” was proof of his taste for the theatrical. So it’s unsurprising that, for his stage helming debut, he has chosen “Trelawny of the Wells,” Pinero’s warm-hearted Victorian love letter to the theater. But robbed of the camera and the edit, Wright’s control of tone and tension proves uncertain. There are laughs and poignancy in the telling, but the two don’t mesh as they should in an evening long on caricature and too short on truth.
There’s certainly as much room for mayhem as there is for merriment in Pinero’s backstager, which begins in a theatrical boarding house all a-flurry with preparations for the farewell party for the eponymous Rose Trelawny (Amy Morgan). She’s the beautiful young star of the Wells theater and her motley crew of thespian friends are giving her a raucous send-off before she leaves to marry into high society via upstanding young Arthur Gower (Joshua Silver), scion of a seriously stuffed-shirt family.
But life with Gower’s censorious fury of a grandfather Sir William (Ron Cook) and his great-aunt Trafalgar (Maggie Steed, a teetering banquet of whimpers, shudders and squeaks) doesn’t go according to plan and a scandal-inducing appearance by her old friends heralds Rose’s abrupt exit. Alas, her return to the stage finds her equally adrift and, pining for her lost love, she finds her talent has evaporated.
It’s perfectly clear that this story of love among — and for — the theatricals will have a happy ending. But Pinero, helped by dramatist Patrick Marber drafted in for invisible mending with light edits plus the switching of lines and even the odd gender, is pursuing a further idea. The 1898 play focuses on young playwright Tom Wrench (Daniel Kaluuya), who dreams of changing the theater for the better, banishing overblown display and replacing it with truthful naturalism.
The infinitely watchable Kuluuya has a piercing directness as Wrench but he’s beset by the weakness stalking the production. Wright doesn’t seem to know how to harness the energy Kaluuya and others transmit. With energy not passed from actor to actor, they’re left working in isolation rather than with each other. And with not enough happening between the cast, there’s no cumulative rhythm and audiences have too little to hold on to.
The actors have been encouraged to push their characters to the extreme, with only the most experienced ones managing to stay on the right side of caricature. Ron Cook offers a master class in the power of understatement both as put-upon landlady Miss Mossop and enraged Sir William, but others sail uncomfortably over the top. The excuse for such overplaying rests in Pinero’s point about the falsity of old-style acting, but although the preposterousness of their posturing raises some big laughs, it’s impossible to believe that these are the hugely popular actors the script tells us they are.
There’s a considerably lighter touch to Hildegard Bechtler’s designs, replete with charmingly comic backdrops and witty props, not to mention the skill with which she suggests a proscenium arch within the Donmar’s open-thrust stage. She also has the advantage of Jon Clark’s atmospheric lighting, which deftly shifts between the stygian gloom of Sir William’s moribund household and the footlights of a Victorian stage.
Those transitions mirror the play’s movement from comedy to touching sincerity. Wright’s production recognizes the divide, but his handling is not subtle enough either to realize the full potential of either state or to keep audiences wholly on-side.