Hampstead Theatre NW3
Before even a word is spoken, Amy Rosenthal’s new comedy is almost fatally handicapped.
Set in the Cornish village of Zennor in 1916, Rosenthal’s play is populated by two literary couples — DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda, and their friends Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, who are persuaded to move into the stone cottage next door.
It was all Lawrence’s idea, to live an idyllic life amongst friends — a vision made no easier by the war and the hostile (off stage) locals who view Lawrence’s pacifism and Frieda’s German accent with increasing suspicion.
Dramatising artists’ attempt to live an idyllic life is not new (Peter Whelan’s The Earthly Paradise about William Morris and Rossetti comes to mind) but Rosenthal elegantly avoids most of the pitfalls of biographical plays.
Though Lawrence was writing Women in Love at the time, the book is, thankfully, hardly referred to. Instead, the focus is on the dynamics of friendship — particularly between conflicting personalities embodied by Ed Stoppard’s passionate and bullying Lawrence and Nick Caldecott’s painfully reserved and self-conscious Murry.
“I’ve been self-conscious since the moment I was conscious,” is a line typical of Rosenthal’s wit.
There is good work too from Charlotte Emmerson, whose Mansfield is frustrated by writer’s block and the sexually distant Murry; and Tracy-Ann Oberman manages to transmit Frieda’s preoccupation with less literary subjects such as sex and eating cake, but without sacrificing her character’s intelligence.
Yet all this takes place on a stage so sterile it sucks the life out of the play. Paul Higgins’ design is the latest Hampstead production to deploy kitsch in pursuit of naturalism.
The cosy interiors; the polystyrene rocks; the patch of lawn — Clare Lizzimore’s production could not be more far removed from the wilds of Cornwall. Rosenthal’s script deserves better. (Tel: 020 7722 9301)