Theatres come in all shapes and sizes, and you can find them in little places other than the West End. Just off the corner of corporate Fleet Street, there’s Bridewell Theatre, once a derelict Victorian swimming pool, which is currently showing Tower Theatre Company’s production of the 1950s play Accolade, written by esteemed playwright Emlyn Williams. The company is passionate about fringe theatre – actors, directors and crew get involved voluntarily – and they tour all over the UK, and go as far as Paris.
Director Dom Ward has picked a cleverly crafted and fascinating play that is arguably one of the best scripts ever written for the British stage. Its dealings with social expectations, class, the media and public reputation back in the 1950s makes many audiences reflect on how the media has drastically evolved since the evolution of the internet and social media platforms, like Twitter, today. Yet the fears that burden celebrities and politicians alike are timeless – they are exactly the same as they were experienced back then.
Williams was one of the most popular writers of the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote widely about out-of-the-ordinary characters, yet he also wrote candidly about his bisexuality and string of flings during his marriage in his autobiography. In many ways Accolade is autobiographical and we see elements of Williams in his lead character, William Trenting – the successful novelist who receives a knighthood from the Queen – then hell breaks loose when he is found out for committing underage sex with a 15-year-old girl in an orgy party he had organised.
Michael Bettell designs the stage as a well-to-do living room, with a typewriter, decanters, sepia coloured photographs and hardback books to portray the civility and complete dedication, and seriousness Trenting has for his writing ambition – he is so successful that it has won him his patronage and services to literature. Yet the other side of his life is a secret, a mystery that creates a slow suspense that subtly settles on Dom Ward’s stage which is the magic of Williams’ writing.
Daniel Ball presents a loving father and husband as Trenting that is too easy to like. Even though he has worked his way up the ladder, there’s not a sight of smugness about him, at all, and as much as it may seem as if he has it all – including a wife that turns a blind eye to his infidelity – Ball shows that Trenting is somehow still dissatisfied, not even a knighthood can make him happier. When he confides to his friend Thane (Jonathan Norris) about his sexual attraction to disreputable people, he speaks frankly, almost convincing us, the audience, that his behaviour is justified as they were the success behind his books.
Norris eloquently gives a few heavy-hearted lines that resonate with many of us and sends the message which Williams’ wanted the audience to consider in that everyone – whether a young adult or high court judge – has something they are ashamed and guilty of.
Lisa Castle makes the cut of Trenting’s solid wife Rona who speaks kindly of her husband, supporting him unconditionally. She also seems grounded, depicting the formality and structure in Trenting’s life. Bethan Sullivan and Teddy Rose give an entertaining performance as Rotherhithe swingers and married couple Phyllis and Harold who make money, through sex, for the health of their daughter.
Lily Ann Green portrays smiley and posh Marian who seems confused of the reality of her friend’s husband’s morally depraved behaviour, while Simon Taylor gives a marvellous show of Daker, the father of the girl Trenting was involved with and blackmailer; first playing off as a father wronged for caring for his under-aged daughter, yet later switching to bribery and bitter resentment over Trenting’s career success and upper class status. Isaac Insley is also courageous as Ian, Trenting’s schoolboy son who ‘gathers his thoughts’ and provides a gem of wisdom to his father without realising it.
This production executes William’s power of suspense creatively, and is completely engaging. It’s a thought-provoking play that surprisingly passed the censors back in the 1950s, and is sure to keep you on your toes and make you think about all those financiers and suits working outside in Fleet Street, and the possible vices they could be committing.
Review by Mary Nguyen
by Emlyn Williams
Directed by Dom Ward
Will Trenting has all the trappings of success: loving family, Nobel prize for literature, house in Regent’s Park – and a secret that risks destroying everything. Public and private worlds collide when the award of a knighthood attracts the glare of the press and the threat of exposure. A story of seedy sex and public propriety, back-street brothels and celebrity scandal, this gripping thriller is as relevant now as when it first shocked audiences in 1950.
Accolade by Emlyn Williams
Tuesday 5th – Saturday 9th April 2016