Reviewed: Joe Wright’s “Trelawny of the Wells”

Theatre itself takes centre stage in “Atonement” director’s first play.

“These roses are the bane of my life,” Ron Cook cried last Friday night at the Donmar Warehouse. His character, Mrs Mossop, never made such a complaint. Nowhere in Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells (1898), even with “most respectful additions and ornamentation” by Patrick Marber (2013), is the proprietess especially concerned with uncooperative props. Cook’s exasperation, collecting up the roses that had scattered as he unpacked the scenery at the beginning of the play, is a symptom of Joe Wright’s theatrical preoccupations: ornamentation, authenticity, class, performativity. It also tickled everyone in the audience, less than five minutes in.

The eponymous Trelawny is a rose too: Rose Trelawny, first lady of the “Barridge Wells Theatre”, a girl preparing to marry up and purge herself of dramatic affectations, making ready for reserve, embroidery and after-dinner whist. This involves saying goodbye to her friends. She must leave the Wells' company, their songs and frippery. But a life of refinement does nothing for the young actress, embodied with saccharine enthusiasm by Amy Morgan. She longs to be back at the Wells, but soon finds that the mainstays of her trade – pantomime delivery, music, melodrama – are becoming outmoded, less sensitive to the needs of an evolving middle class and its desire to achieve “respectability”.

Trelawny of the Wells, which opened at the weekend, is Atonement and Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright’s first stage production. However, it was in Anna Karenina (2012) that he first put theatre on stage. The decision to film Tom Stoppard's Tolstoy adaptation within the confines of a proscenium arch was much discussed. Wright has a personal stake in theatre history. He was raised in the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington, which his parents built from the rubble of a derelict temperance hall in the early 1960s. Pinero also grew up in Islington. Both were taken to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre as children, and both have used their work to question the uses and boundaries of staged drama. Though less revolutionary than his Norwegian counterpart Henrik Ibsen, Pinero wanted to discuss morality, class and gender politics in his work (The Magistrate, recently staged at the National Theatre, did not take this element as seriously as Wright).

Part-way through the second act, the backdrop collapses to the floor. The rococo interior folds to reveal the bare brick walls of the Donmar Warehouse, previously a vat room for storing brewery hops. But this time, unlike the roses, it doesn’t happen by mistake. With it emerges a company preparing for a new kind of theatre, as envisioned by the earnest playwright Tom Wrench (Daniel Kaluuya).

The play flirts with ideas about recognisable voices, fully-developed characters and well-proportioned scenery, but does so while mythologising a period in London’s history when patrons, actors, money and fashion gave each theatre its own house style. It is best not to make too much of the auteur Wrench, inspired by the Victorian playwright T W Robertson. Wright’s production is voluptuous, makes much of familiar character-types and is no stranger to song. The two old men in the row behind me kept on saying “indeed” rather than laughing, which wound me up. But the play’s loose generosity with the script, the energy of the cast and intelligent set design by Hildegard Bechtler, pulls it through.

The Donmar is a small theatre. Sitting in the circle you are as close to being “on” stage as any audience is likely to be. The company seem full of affection for the roles they play, and for the history they appear to represent. And yet it is the scattered roses, the doubled-up cross-gender parts, the over-sized plastic food that makes its most forceful point. Trelawny does not claim to represent the truth, but a version of it.

Joe Wright. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis