Aussie writer Julia Britton’s take on the Bloomsbury set’s self-absorbed, flamboyant lifestyle is here brought to us through the eyes of one of the group’s protagonists, bisexual painter Duncan Grant, played in this UK premiere by Tamblyn Lord.
With copious references to friends, lovers and loved including DH Lawrence, EM Forster, Virginia Woolf, cousin Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes and Vanessa Bell, Grant guides us through a life devoted to his sexuality in equal measure to his painting. Britton has spotted a narrator’s way in to the workings of the Bloomsbury figures, but Grant is more interested in telling us about his own feelings rather than his A-list associates, save for his parodies of their mannerisms.
Originally devised with an ensemble cast in mind, this production has become something of a reading. Perhaps this is due to the costs of bringing a complete cast over from Down Under – if so, it’s a shame. Britton’s handle on the period from the point of view of a contemporary and outsider is intriguing, but presenting the material as a monologue surely doesn’t show it off to its best potential.
Lord has a monumental task to get through as the only cast member in the piece. He “impersonates” the other members of the set in two-way conversations in which he takes both roles. In these he seems to strive for accuracy rather than amusement. Grant is billed as a man with a “dazzling diversity of talents” but what we get here is a party bore.
But even without the handicaps placed on him by the script, Lord is immediately in trouble. His faux gentrified interwar English accent at first sounds foreign. The vowels are inconsistent and he seems to have two character traits for Grant – a stammering “I – I” that ends, rather than begins sentences and a tendency to grin rather irritatingly at us. His impersonations of the other names fare little better. Even Lawrence’s would-be northern accent is a mess of geography.
He pontificates about his penis, being a “sodomite”, how he fell passionately in love. Rather than convincing us of Grant’s genius and talent as an artist and socialite, he instead rapidly becomes tiresome in the extreme. His notion of love seems more intellectual than spiritual in Britton’s script, his emotions feigned, acted, falsified. The “joyous zest” with which Britton tells us he went out into the world seems like the grinning of a cheap salesman.
An interminable amount of this grinning confessional essentially leaves the evening utterly devoid of theatre. Lord’s monologue is only relieved by occasional knocks at the set walls from someone who is never let in. Were it that they were, to break up the tedium. Almost without realising it, my eyes began to wander across the fine detail of the intimate set, constructed as Grant’s studio, and the paintings on show there. Anthony Breslin’s design is layered, effective and striking and provides an excellent backdrop for the play’s action – one plus point at least.
Pity then that there is no action to speak of. The closest we get to it is a rather gratuitous strip from Lord, who briefly flounces around his studio in the buff before dressing again.
A play that neglects to remember what theatre is, that has scant capacity for drama, Fresh Pleasures is a disappointment. Had it managed to raise some laughter it might better have been titled The Anus Monologues, but the pleasures on offer here are few and far between.