Jonathan KempAnthony Eden
Jamie de Courcey
Patrick Hamilton is currently enjoying a much-deserved renaissance. The Old Vic’s production of Gaslight reminded sell-out crowds of his deliciously shameless gothic tricks; his books are being reissued in Penguin; the BBC took on his semi-autobiographical trilogy 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. Now that the Finborough Theatre has revived Fidelis Morgan’s dramatisation of his tar-black novel Hangover Square, it can surely be only a matter of time before the BFI screens Hitchcock’s version of Rope, and bruise-eyed men from Shoreditch to Tufnell Park take to sporting pencil-thin moustaches and a gin-bottle in the pocket of their double breasted suits.
Set on the brink of the Second World War – when there were still to be found in pub corners those who supported Hitler and Mussolini and thought Neville Chamberlain a thoroughly good egg – Hangover Square manages a realist evocation of the seedy world of Earl’s Court, and a superbly gothic plot thick with sexual obsession, betrayal, madness and violence. Its protagonist, George Harvey Bone, is one of the most memorable in twentieth century literature. Cursed with the perennial problem of the amiable and over-large, which is never to be admired or taken seriously, he shambles his way into a group of failed actors and writers, who live off his meagre income and shy goodwill. He is desperately in love with Netta Longdon, an embittered actress with not the least shred of compassion or kindness, and who consciously drives him further into misery.
What gives the novel and this admirable production a gleefully savage bite is that Bone suffers inexplicable black-outs, during which time his recollection of his waking life is hazy, and he knows only one thing clearly: that he must kill Netta Longdon.
Morgan’s adaptation makes excellent use both of Hamilton’s brisk narrative drive, and his experimentation with language, this being the quality that lifts the novel beyond the penny-dreadfuls it rather resembles. The central performance, from Matthew Flynn as Bone, is excellent: he evokes with every hunched posture the absolute humiliating misery of loving an unattainable object.
Director Gemma Fairlie has made the curious decision of casting two near-identical actresses as Netta. Both Caroline Faber and Clare Calbraith are capably spiteful, displaying a beautifully turned knee under the chiffon skirts of a woman who is unmistakeably no better than she should be. However, this conceit was profoundly distracting. Presented with a plot of giddying richness, and one in which there is already a split personality, wilful complexity of this nature adds little to the production. Far more effective was the use of cast members casually leaning in the corners of the set, whispering balefully as Bone sinks into a homicidal trance.
The other standout performance was Jamie de Courcy as Johnnie Littlejohn, an old friend of Bone’s who represents all that’s simplest and most straightforward in a friend: in the play, as in the novel, the most moving scene comes when Johnnie stoops to lift a drunken Bone out of the gutter.
As is customary with the Finborough, resident designer Alex Marker has created, with a meticulous eye for period detail, a wonderfully transporting set. It serves as Earl’s Court pub, sleazy Brighton boarding-house, and seedy lodgings. I very nearly had to sit on my hands to prevent myself clapping with glee when rainwater ran through a drainpipe over a grimy London skylight, as George Harvey Bone poured himself another melancholy gin-and-lime.
This production is by no means flawless, but it does justice to a novel that understands with brutal honesty the endless casual unkindness we show each other but all the same has no objection to telling a damn good tale.