Prior to last night, it had been almost two years since I had last seen a play on the Main Stage at Hampstead Theatre and, frankly, after last night, it’ll be at least another two years before I go back. It’s not that The Slaves of Solitude was awful, not at all. More it was averagely adequately pleasant. Nothing was ruptured, no risks were taken (either in plot or production), and no hard truths were examined.
We are in a fictional London suburb during World War Two, a boarding house, to be exact, in a town based, quite evidently, on Henley-on-Thames. The place is filled with the elderly – widows and widowers – all of whom are sheltering away from London, and away from the bombing and destruction.
Yet also amongst them is Miss Roach (Fenella Woolgar), a middle-aged woman who seems to want to recede from the world, to gather dust quietly in the corner, afraid to risk her heart and her sense of proper behaviour.
Only all that is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of the handsome American GI, Lieutenant Dayton Pike (Daon Broni) whose charm ruffles Miss Roach as much as his skin colour ruffles some of the residents at the boarding house, most notably a Mr Thwaites (Clive Francis), whose racism, xenophobia and misogyny is a constant source of angst for Miss Roach.
Add to that, Miss Roach finds herself befriended by a German woman (Lucy Cohu) who takes a shine to the Lieutenant also and, well, will Miss Roach finally have to take a risk in order to defeat her love rival?
The play is adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s novel of the same name and, whilst I haven’t read that specific book, I know enough about Hamilton’s style to see that playwright Nicholas Wright and director Jonathan Kent have done their best to transfer that languid style, that atmospheric slow burner, to the stage.
There’s certainly a good emphasis on Miss Roach’s internal psychological battles as she looks to challenge her own reserve, her walls that keep her safe, to embrace an element of recklessness in her life to feel joy, even the rush of life. The only issue with that is that the play is then lumbered with narrative drive issues. Conflict is at a very low level in many of the scenes, which may work in a novel but is a lot harder to get around on stage. Extended passages of attempted seduction by the handsome American Lieutenant drag on and change is only slight.
But my bigger concern was with the simplest of questions – why? Why this adaptation, and why now?
Patrick Hamilton’s novel was published in 1947, making it seventy years old. Not exactly contemporary and questionable in its relevance. Sure, revolving a drama around an introverted woman is an interesting challenge, by why this story, in particular? Why another drama about White England during the Second World War?
The highlight of the evening was unquestionably Fenella Woolgar’s performance in the lead role. Wound as tight as a coil, her inner conflict was practically tangible. But it would be remiss of me not to confess that I was disappointed that a show that centres itself around a woman finding her voice had a male director as well as a male playwright on the adaptation.
Added to that unease was the sniggers and guffaws from the audience during a scene when Mr Thwaite tried to sexually assault our heroine (this at a theatre where I was appalled to see a play that had the sexual assault of a young woman deliberately played for laughs) and, well, I think we can see that this evening just wasn’t for me. Horses for courses, and all that, but just another sobering reminder that Hampstead isn’t interested in being at the cutting-edge of contemporary theatre.
Hampstead Theatre, London, to November 25, 2017
All production images by Manuel Harlan.