Matthew Ashforde as Natty Hemworth in DISTINGUISHED VILLA (photo by Carla Evans)

IN BRIEF An interesting play in an uneven revival, boosted by a standout performance

He stands there, shaking, hunched, broken, in despair. “Just say one kind word to me” pleads Natty to his wife. It does not come.

DISTINGUISHED VILLA is an interesting, and still valid, exploration of what people give up – and cover up – in order to be seen as “respectable”.

Irish writer Kate O’Brien’s play takes us back to 1926. Mabel and Natty Hemworth, married for 15 years, live in “the most refined home in The Avenue”.  Mabel is ruled by maintaining her respectable social status. Natty is ruled by Mabel.

Prudish, cold Mabel, permanently clad in a chastity belt of an apron throughout, devotes her time to maintaining her house as model of cleanliness and order – unlike her mismatched marriage to sad Natty, who lives a life of quiet desperation and self-loathing, heartily aided and abetted by his wife. “I’ve kept him in his place” boasts Mabel about Natty, with a dizzying pride.

In their home also resides Mabel’s younger sister Gwen, and a sophisticated lodger from a higher social bracket, Miss Llewellyn who is “keen to observe” their lives. However, when she becomes entangled in the family’s affairs, it sets in motion a chain of revelations and tragic events with consequences for all the characters.

Downtrodden, despairing Natty finds interest from the new lodger that his wife lacks. And although her beau is artistically-inclined John Morris, impressionable Gwen gets swept off her feet by posh good-time cad Alec who calls upon Miss Llewellyn but ends up impregnating Gwen.

Although the occasional hints of comedy have faded across the years, the themes of the play, the inequalities of class and the pressure of society’s expectations upon both men and women are, depressingly, still as fresh today as when the play was first written. Although the expression of these themes through the play has changed with time, we can empathise with Natty’s mental health crisis, but perhaps in a different way to 1926 audiences, when men didn’t talk about their feelings. The same can be said about Gwen’s righteous sense of injustice at being used and dumped, in an age where unmarried mothers were automatically judged and damned by society.

The most satisfying performance comes from Matthew Ashforde, who gives a splendidly detailed performance as Natty, with a sad downward gaze, forever looking out of the window of his pristine prison towards “freedom”. He makes a big impact when Natty allows himself to reveal his tortured feelings and dissatisfaction with life, fully holding the (otherwise slow Sunday afternoon) audience in his “confession” to Miss Llewellyn about his sadness and guilt.

All of the cast work hard. Mia Austen has an uphill job as Mabel, whose character type has become something of a cliché over the subsequent years. There are no hints at redeeming features in Mabel, and consequently it is difficult to have any empathy or connection with the character, which felt too grindingly monotone to sustain interest.

Brian Martin as John Morris, the mismatched suitor to Gwen, battles valiantly with some very flowery poetic love dialogue, which can be best described as a draw, although it must be said that his earlier work at the Finborough, in the same producer’s JANE CLEGG some three years ago, was very strong.

It’s definitely a case of “less is more” in a space as intimate as the 50-seat Finborough and at times, for me, the playing felt too big for the space, and for this reason, the production feels uneven. (Interesting to note that the play found its success playing in the 400-seat Little Theatre in London’s West End).

The Finborough has a high reputation in unearthing rediscoveries, and it is always fascinating to see how a play from another era “travels”. In this case, although time has changed the landscape of the play in terms of how it plays, the underlying emotions still resonate across time, and I was very glad to have had the chance to see and support a celebrated Irish female writer’s work from almost a century ago. Thanks again to the Finborough and producer Andrew Maunder for this rare opportunity.

DISTINGUISHED VILLA runs at the Finborough until October 1st.

Find more information and book tickets here

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