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Agnes Colander: An Attempt at Life at Jermyn Street Theatre

Agnes Colander - Photo by Robert Workman
Agnes Colander – Photo by Robert Workman

Granville Barker wrote this witty and compelling exploration of love, sexual attraction and independence in 1900. Perhaps realising that if the Lord Chamberlain would not allow Ibsen’s A Doll’s House to be performed, Agnes Colander stood no chance, he put it aside, to be discovered 100 years later amongst Barker’s papers, revised by Richard Nelson, given a staged reading by the National Theatre in 2016 and now revived at Jermyn Street Theatre.

Agnes, an artist, has left her elderly husband and is now living with Otto, a worldly Danish artist, but torn between hankering after Alexander, an infatuated young suitor, and a longing to be an independent woman, as well as a yearning to be loved.

The play is mostly structured in a series of duologues and has been beautifully and sensitively directed by Trevor Nunn, with great attention to detail, but always seeming spontaneous and naturalistic in style. One of the great joys of the production is that Nunn is never afraid to let the play speak for itself: there are moments of silence, pathos, humour and tragedy, each perfectly paced so that the audience understands the thought processes in the minds of the protagonists and is able to empathise with them.

Agnes is portrayed subtly by Naomi Frederick. She is an eminently watchable and charismatic actor, especially in the use of her eyes, and her scenes with Otto (Matthew Flynn) are totally believable – there is real chemistry between them.

Otto, clearly older than Agnes, and with ‘set’ views on the place of women in early C20 society, blusters most effectively. He is the embodiment of what we expect an artist to be – one moment begging Agnes not to leave him, the next instantly distracted by a new colour he has discovered in the sea which he is painting.

The young suitor Alexander (Harry Lister Smith) is an innocent almost jejune young man who almost literally fawns at Agnes’ feet. He is the antithesis of Otto and it is easy to see why Agnes, in her ‘attempt at life’ fall for him, in spite of herself.

Sally Scott portrays the neighbour Emmeline, who has the traditional attitudes of the time, and Cindy-Jan Armbruster is most effective in the roles of the servants Martha and Suzon.

This production was originally seen at the intimate Ustinov Studio in Bath, but Jermyn Street Theatre is even more intimate and the set, which doubles as a room in London and a seaside cottage in Normandy, has been completely and successfully redesigned (Robert Jones) and is both convincing and easy to use. His costumes are equally imaginative and appropriate, especially Agnes’ gorgeous red dress in the first act.

Paul Pyant’s lighting imaginatively conveys the dim natural light of London in the first scene, and the warm French seaside tones in the remainder of the play, even when evening draws on.

This is not a great play, whatever that is, but is so lovingly staged by all those involved that it seems a much more substantial piece of writing than perhaps it is. It certainly draws the audience in – there is total belief in the characters and involvement in their lives and decisions. Two hours fly by. VERY strongly recommended.
5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

Three years after leaving her unfaithful husband and striking out as an artist, Agnes receives his letter ordering her home. But Agnes married young; her innocence has gone and her ambition is growing. Fleeing to France to find a new future, Agnes is pursued by the besotted Alec and worldly-wise Otho. Beset on all sides, can Agnes seize the chance to shape her own life?

Hailed as a long-lost masterpiece, Harley Granville Barker’s witty and compelling exploration of love, sexual attraction and independence was written in 1900 and unearthed in the British Library a century later. Following an acclaimed run at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, Trevor Nunn’s world premiere production arrives in London for five weeks only.

Naomi Frederick, Matthew Flynn, Sally Scott, Cindy Jane Armbruster, Harry Lister Smith.

Revised by Richard Nelson
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Designed by Robert Jones
Lighting by Paul Pyant
Sound by Felix O’Hare
Music by Steven Edis
Casting by Ginny Schiller

Company Stage Manager Amy Spall
Assistant Stage Manager Amy Clement
Props Supervisor Lisa Buckley
Costume Supervisor Emily Stuart
Hairstylist and wigs mistress Frances Stebbing

Based on the original production at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

David Adkin in association
with Adam Roebuck and Panorama
An Attempt at Life
by Harley Granville Barker

Tue, 12th February – Sat, 16th March


  • 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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