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Distinguished Villa at the Finborough Theatre

Distinguished Villa is the first play by Irish novelist Kate O’Brien. In spite of censorship from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, it was successfully staged in the West End for three months in 1926 and then toured widely. Despite being the first play by an, at the time, unknown author the play received a good deal of press attention, dealing, as it does with “ordinary” people, especially females, discussing pre-marital sex, pregnancy and the unappealing prospect of motherhood. Since the original production, it has been rarely seen.

Tessa Bonham Jones. Credit Carla Evans.
Tessa Bonham Jones. Credit Carla Evans.

Mabel (Mia Austen) rules her home and husband Natty (Matthew Ashforde) with a rod of iron and expects others to follow her ‘nice’ example of domestic life. But this is all turned upside down by the arrival of lodger Frances (Holly Sumpton) who holds ‘modern’ (for 1926) views on what life has to offer. Independence, romance and life beyond the suburbs beckon. O’Brien is very clever in drawing the audience in by convincing us in Act One that this is a typical light comedy of the time, but gradually the play becomes darker, heightened by the fact that Acts Two and Three are run without a break, helping to build the sense of claustrophobia, and the end is quite chilling.

The beautifully paced production by Hugh Fraser benefits from some superb performances, and the director is never afraid to let the play speak for itself, never pushing the pace unnecessarily, increasing the tension all the time.

Mia Austen is very believable as Mabel, instinctively knowing the slightly heightened style of acting required – as does everyone in the cast. She has a very telling, subtle use of facial expression: we can tell exactly what she is thinking, and usually saying! She is thrillingly awful when laying into Natty in Act Three: we long for him to stand up to her, but Natty is the epitome of the downtrodden husband, depressed, bored, but unable to leave the marriage. Ashforde has perfected a weary voice for Natty, which sounds old before its time, and his moves are those of someone much older than he actually is.

Holly Sumpton has a wonderful stillness as Frances, steering the actions of everyone else without them even beginning to realise that she, not Mabel, is in charge.

The subplot, skilfully woven into the fabric of the play, involves Mabel’s sister, Gwendolyn, a beautifully poised portrayal by Tessa Bonham Jones, her fiancé John (Brian Martin), subtly changing from over-enthusiastic and bouncy in Act One to despair by Act Three, and villain of the piece Alec (Simon Haines), whose face one also longs to slap – hard – by the end of the play!

Mim Houghton is responsible for the excellent set, Jonathan Simpson the lighting and Carla Evans the stylish costumes.

Yes, I know that Distinguished Villa (and by the way, the title is explained in Act One) is a tad dated, for example, Act One would benefit from some pruning, and it is a very “theatrical” play, but it is certainly involving, drawing us in scene by scene, duologue by duologue in Act Two so that we really feel we know and empathise with those involved in what is happening, especially in the intimate atmosphere of the Finborough Theatre. As I have stated above it is also superbly acted and directed – a play not to be missed – sending one out of the theatre determined to read some of Kate O’Brien’s novels to see if they are as powerful!

A truly great evening at the theatre! GO!

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

Brixton, 1926.

Mabel Hemworth rules her home and husband with a rod of iron. She expects others to follow her ‘nice’ example of domestic life. But this rule-bound world is turned upside down by the arrival of Frances, a new lodger who holds modern views about what life can offer. And Mabel’s own sister, the mercenary Gwen, a typist obsessed with the cinema, has her own plans to escape.

Independence, romance and a life beyond stifling suburbia beckon. The consequences will be life-changing for everyone…

Both a humorous study of suburban manners and a serious look at the limits placed on young women in the roaring twenties, Distinguished Villa was the debut play of the distinguished Irish writer, Kate O’Brien, now rediscovered for a contemporary audience. When it premiered in the West End in 1926, the play was a hit despite being censored for its outspoken views.

Production Team
Producer: Presented by Andrew Maunder for Aardvark Theatre in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.


by Kate O’Brien
Tuesday, 6 September – Saturday, 1 October 2022

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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