Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Potting Shed at the Finborough Theatre

Like Cold Comfort Farm’s Aunt Ada Doom, Graham Greene’s infrequently performed play is preoccupied by something dark at the bottom of the garden.

The play has not been seen on a London stage in forty years and, on watching it, it’s possible to grasp why this has been the case. Greene’s fixation with issues of faith and the rather ponderous way in which the play unfolds root it squarely in the past; however as a counterpoint to his work as a novelist, if only to illustrate that what works well on paper doesn’t always translate to the stage, it is an intriguing piece. 

In the play Greene returns to a familiar theme: the answered prayer. The Callifer patriarch, a renowned rationalist and chum of Bertrand Russell, is on his death bed and his friends and family have been summoned to his side – with the exception of his son James who has been all but ostracised from family life following a mysterious incident in the potting shed when he was a boy.

The first half of the play is concerned with the now middle-aged James’ desire to discover just what happened to him and why it has so split the family (an uncle who became a Catholic priest has also been painted out of the picture). While the play contains some pleasingly crisp lines of dialogue, the plotting is repetitive with James continually pleading with his mother to tell him what happened – for he has no memory of the event, no memory of his childhood at all – and her continually refusing to bend.
Eventually, with the help of his inquisitive niece, James is able to track down his uncle and discover the cause of the family rift; the play hinges on this moment of revelation and the scene between James and his uncle is the strongest in the play. But it takes an age to get there; there’s a stiff quality to the early scenes and while Greene does appear to have tried to build a sense of tension and mystery, it doesn’t quite come off.

Svetlana Dimcovic’s production for the Finborough is solidly staged and draws some strong performances from the cast. Paul Cawley, as James, slowly develops from the passive and baffled man of the opening scenes, through methedrine-fuelled desperation to dig up the truth, to a kind of contentment. Martin Wimbush, in his brief turn as the whisky-sodden Father William Callifer is also impressive, giving a sense of man who has lost some vital part of his himself, and Zoe Thorne is appealing as Anne, James’ young niece whose openness stands in marked contrast to her family’s tendency to bury the things they find disagreeable.

The main hurdle, which this revival can’t quite get over, is the crux of the play itself. Greene’s depiction of faith and its loss, the literalness of it, feels heavy-handed and forced on the stage; to contemporary eyes there is even the danger of it appearing daft. Interestingly, with the exception of Anne and perhaps also of Father William, the characters simply don’t take shape in the same manner as the characters of his novels do; they seem flat in comparison, despite being stood there in front of the audience. That said, the play has an appealing oddness about it and as a thing of its time and for those who know Greene's work well, it is of real interest, particularly in the way it echoes themes from his novels. 

Reviewed for musicOMH

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