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Review of Yours Unfaithfully at Jermyn Street Theatre

It’s entirely possible, as it has been for some years, to declare oneself ‘in an open relationship’ on Facebook as well as in the real world – it is, in essence, about the option of having other lovers, and not that one is obligated to have them. But, when Yours Unfaithfully was first written, in 1933, the world was a different place. Or was it? Anne Meredith (Laura Doddington) is very concerned with what friends, acquaintances and the outside world at large are going to think about her husband Stephen (Guy Lewis) having the widowed Diana Streatfield (Keisha Atwell) as a lover, especially now the news has somehow (well, by means fully explained in the dialogue, but let’s not give everything away) reached Stephen’s father, Canon Gordon (Tony Timberlake). It’s the interwar equivalent of a story possibly going viral.

Keisha Atwell and Guy Lewis in Yours Unfaithfully at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photography by Steve Gregson.
Keisha Atwell and Guy Lewis in Yours Unfaithfully at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photography by Steve Gregson.

The canon (of which cathedral, unless I missed it, wasn’t made clear) is a somewhat underwritten character, with his clergyman status commensurate with his moralising tone as the father of a grown man who still calls his son ‘boy’. Interestingly for a ninety-year-old play, consent is not a significant issue, because it’s freely given between Stephen and Anne, with Stephen’s best friend Dr Alan Kirby (Dominic Marsh) quite non-plussed when the canon confides – shock horror – he is aware of extra-marital relations.

It would, thankfully, be a mistake to think this was all the show was about – even considering the relatively leisurely pace of a play both set and written in a previous generation, it would be difficult to sustain interest in a three-act show if there was nothing else to talk about apart from non-monogamy. So there’s talk of car journeys and cricket matches, and of children – Stephen and Anne have their own, though they are barely mentioned, and are weirdly never seen nor heard. There’s also some sort of school that Anne predominantly runs. They couldn’t find one they were content to send their children to, so they started their own.

I hadn’t realised before seeing the show how – broadly speaking – playwright Miles Malleson’s (1888-1969) own life mirrored that of Stephen Meredith, in the sense that his (Malleson’s) first marriage was an open one, with his wife being in a relationship with the philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell, himself a married man. The dissatisfaction Stephen has with Western Christian organised religion, a contributing factor to his ongoing quarrels with his father, is, I would have thought, relatable to contemporary audiences. I would have liked to find out what the canon thought of King Solomon in the Bible with his seven hundred wives and three hundred ‘concubines’ (mistresses).

Anyway, the veneer of ‘keep calm and carry on’ (a motivational phrase, I’m quite aware, that didn’t appear on posters in Britain until six years after the play was written) couldn’t be sustained, and the later scenes with emotional depth were in contrast to the heady earlier attitudes, best encapsulated (for me) in the phrase ‘you only live once’. Anett Black’s costume design, meanwhile, is quintessentially interwar, as is Alex Marker’s set design: I tried, totally unsuccessfully, to find anything out of place in the production’s 1930s setting.

The play’s conclusion was not one I could have reasonably predicted, and there were hearty laughs from the audience when Anne declared that there wasn’t, after all, to be a conventional ‘happy’ ending. There’s considerable food for thought in this perceptive and witty production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Everyone knows Anne and Stephen are the happiest couple in the neighbourhood. Their secret? An open marriage. After all, it’s the 1930s – there’s no need to be old-fashioned. With Stephen struggling to write his latest novel, Anne encourages him to seek out fresh inspiration. But free love comes at a price…

Miles Malleson’s un-romantic comedy takes a peek behind the closed doors of suburban England between the wars. Jonathan Bank directed the acclaimed world premiere of this forgotten 1933 play in New York and now brings it home to the West End. A co-production with Mint Theater Company, New York City.

Jermyn Street Theatre London and Mint Theater Company New York

1 JUNE – 1 JULY 2023

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