“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.