Thursday, 21 February 2019

REVIEW: Agnes Colander at the Jermyn Street Theatre

When I first saw this production of “Agnes Colander” from the front row at the Ustinov studio at the Theatre Royal Bath in April 2018, I was struck by how effectively they created the atmosphere and feel of the two contrasting locations of the play and of the period. In Act 1 scene1 we were in an Edwardian accommodation occupied by Agnes as an artist’s studio with a large skylight in London surrounded by her half-finished work and through a slick scene change in the rest of the play, we were in a remote French coastal with an artist workspace on the balcony outside. It helped set the tone for the action and the performances and it felt naturalistic. 

Somehow when designer Robert Jones was asked to redesign the production for the small Jermyn Street Theatre all of this was lost. The features of the rooms could not be accommodated, and the central table and chairs feels too large for the thin narrow acting space which seemed to constrain the movement and blocking. It is left to Paul Pyant to create the location atmosphere with his lighting design in the dingy mouldy London flat and the bright summery French cottage. As a result, the actors seem to over compensate in their performances and the already wordy dialogue seems laboured and stilted.

Harley Granville Barker was a relatively young man when he wrote this play in 1900 before he established himself as a giant of Edwardian theatre as an actor, director and critic. He produced and directed in repertory seasons in London theatres and went on to write several plays that established him as a playwright like the Voysey Inheritance and The Madras House. Agnes Colander was apparently lost until discovered in the British Library a hundred years later. While its strong feminist themes of unhappy marriage, shaping her own life and artistic freedom are relevant today it is not clear whether it was lost due the writer’s dissatisfaction (he apparently later wrote that it was “very poor”) or through censorship. Written around the same time as George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, it does not stand the test of time as well as their plays.

The wonderful Trevor Nunn directs this revised version by Richard Nelson and tries to breathe life into the story and the long duologues by requiring a slow and deliberate delivery with lots of knowing pauses and staring into space as lines are delivered. In the opening sequence we see Agnes reflecting quietly on a letter she has received and on an unseen painting she is working on and when Otto arrives, she at first hides both before revealing the contents of the letter. We don’t see the painting she is working on until the final scene. Without words she establishes the troubled struggle she is engaged in.

Agnes, Naomi Frederick reprising the role she played in Bath is the troubled
artist torn between her unseen husband Henry Verity, the rough boorish lover Otto, played by Matthew Flynn and Alex, her young admirer played by Harry Lister Smith. The very different physical characters are easily established with some well-judged costumes by Robert Jones, but we never quite believe what they are saying, and Agnes’s changes of direction and affection seem illogical and rather sudden.

Jermyn Street theatre seems to programme some unusual plays, having reviewed “The Dog Beneath the Skin” and “Billy Bishop goes to war” over the last year and “Agnes Colander” is another curiosity shoe horned into the tiny space. It is interesting to see but perhaps to easily reveals the flaws of the writing and the limited space.

Review by: Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★

Seat: Row E | Price of ticket: £30
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