A couple of months ago, The Finborough Theatre revived, for the first time in decades, Christopher Fry’s verse play The Lady’s Not for Burning. Now, at the same venue and as part of their “Rediscoveries” programme, enterprising company Primavera dip again into the back catalogue of works by great poets, with the first London production for over a half a century of T S Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk.
Ostensibly, this is a drawing-room comedy of eccentric characters and contrived plot but, as you might expect from Eliot, there’s a good deal more to it. It has a light-hearted humour you might not expect from the writer of The Wasteland and The Four Quartets but it’s also a play of sparkling surfaces and hidden depths, of aspirations and settlings, reality and make-believe, deceptions and revelations, legitimacy and bastardy.
Sir Claude Mulhammer, a successful financier and would-be potter, wants to smuggle his illegitimate son into his family under the guise of his new Confidential Clerk. His slightly cranky wife, Lady Elizabeth, a chaser of every spiritual fad going, takes to the lad and soon becomes convinced that he is actually her own son by a former marriage.
There are overtones of Greek drama (it is actually based around a Euripides play) but what comes most strongly to mind are the plays of Oscar Wilde, both in the witty and urbane use of language and the complicated and (in this case) ultimately tedious plot machinations. You half expect a handbag to be used in place of a birth certificate, as the muddle of family relations is unravelled.
Tom Littler’s production suffered, at least in early performances, from some actors not totally secure with their lines and a tendency to bellow as though they are on the stage of the National Theatre, rather than in a tiny room with no-one else characters or audience more than a few feet away. The volume can certainly be turned down a few notches. What it has in abundance is enthusiasm and energy, although the foot could come off the accelerator a little in the first act, when the exposition comes thick and fast and some time for reflection would help.
Martin Bishop, a late replacement for the potty entrepreneur Sir Claude, bumbles nicely and David Barnaby is excellent as Eggerson, the original Confidential Clerk, who is the still, wise centre of the piece. Tamara Ustinov gets the dottiness of Lady Elizabeth but is maybe not as formidable as the text suggests while Judy Norman brings an effective frostiness to Mrs Guzzard, the dea ex machina upon whom resolution depends. As the gaggle of half-siblings (or are they?), Antonina Lewis, Freddie Huntington and Anthony Wilks play the new generation attractively.
As with Fry’s slightly earlier work, there’s a certain curiosity value in revisiting an all but forgotten verse play but, written at almost exactly the same time that Beckett was forging a whole new drama, there is something terribly backward-looking about the genre and I can’t see there being a major renaissance any time soon.