Distinguished Villa, Finborough Theatre – Review

Before the advent of ‘kitchen sink’ drama in 1950s Britain – with its emphasis on realism and the lives of the working class – many ‘modern’ plays focused on the Establishment. But even in the 1920s when Noel Coward was all the rage, Irish playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw and JM Synge were influenced by the likes of Henrik Ibsen, and ‘pushed the envelope’ of what plays could address and to who. And then came Kate O’Brien…

Bethrothed: John Morris (Brian Martin) and Gwendolyn Tupman (Tessa Bonham Jones) / All photos © Carla Evans

‘Rediscovered’ by the Finborough Theatre – which has an enviable track record of unearthing gems from yesteryear – their showcasing of O’Brien’s Distinguished Villa is the first in London since 1926. In many ways ahead of its time, Distinguished Villa spearheaded the trend for female-led plays that focused on women’s working and personal lives. This focus was later to be adopted by the likes of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928) and John Van Druten’s London Wall (1931).

New lodger Frances Llewellyn (Holly Sumpton)

Living in Brixton, Mabel Hemworth (Mia Austen) makes it her business to have the best kept house on “the Avenue”, as well as be on good terms with people who she thinks have social influence. Residing in the same premises is her husband Natty (Matthew Ashforde), her younger sister Gwendolyn (Tessa Bonham Jones), and her new lodger Frances Llewellyn (Holly Sumpton). A keen believer in the adage “cleanliness is next to godliness”, Mabel spends most of her time cleaning the house from top to bottom – even going so far as to openly say that looking after the home is a ‘career’.

Houseproud Mabel Hemworth (Mia Austen)

Without even being conscious of it, Mabel has very firm views of what constitutes appropriate behaviour and has a natural deference to the middle- and upper classes. If Mabel is ‘rigid’ in terms of her aversion to ‘fun’, Natty has no such compulsions, though he is ‘natty’ (well-dressed) for Mabel’s sake. He is as convivial as Mabel is self-restrained and his jovial personality is appreciated by Frances…

Frequent visitor Alec Webberley (Simon Haines)

While ‘only’ a librarian, Frances’s refined and cultured bearing marks her out as a ‘cut above the masses’, which suits Mabel’s aspirational proclivities. However, Frances’s presence also serves to remind Natty of the levity that was missing at home previously… One senses that the fate of Natty and Frances are inextricably entwined, though because of her ‘unorthodox’ views on life, there is a similar connection between Frances and Gwen’s fiancé, John (Brian Martin). This is in marked contrast to her would-be suitor Alec Webberley (Simon Haines) – a man of means, who Mabel thinks the world of, but whose advances Frances repeatedly turns down. But if Alec’s protestations of love fall on deaf ears, there’s certainly chemistry between himself and Gwen, who is not quite as circumspect as her older sister…

Feeling apprehensive: Gwendolyn Tupman (Tessa Bonham Jones)

Austen in some ways has the hardest task of making a potentially ‘unlikeable’ character like Mabel, complex and well-rounded. However, she succeeds at conveying a character driven by their convictions and without her presence, the play’s plot and dynamics would have been very different. In some ways, she has the ‘masculine’ role in the marriage – having her own way most of the time and putting ‘principles’ above feelings, but inadvertently blind to the way she makes others’ feel and her own mental health issues.

Estaranged: Natty Hemworth (Matthew Ashforde) and wife Mabel (Mia Austen)

If Austen’s Mabel is the Prime Mover whose actions – directly or indirectly – affect all within her orbit, Ashforde’s Natty is the emotional heart of the play. Yet like a ‘clown’, his jovality hides the fact that during his marriage, he’s been starved of kindness, intimacy and love. Ashford deftly conveys the emotional weight of a man who lacks the vocabularly to articulate his unhappy existence, but is habitually made to feel guilty by Mabel for having independent thoughts and feelings.

Finding music a source of contention: Natty Hemworth (Matthew Ashforde)

The presence of Sumpton’s Frances can also not be understated. But beyond her empathetic and resolute demeanour, there is a tragic quality to the character for being one step removed from truly understanding everything that’s transpired in the ‘Distinguished Villa’.

Perhaps best known as Captain Hastings in the Agatha Christie’s Poirot TV series, director Hugh Fraser was for many years ‘immersed’ in the world of the 1920s. He brings to the table an understanding of the era and an ‘authenticity’ to the stage, whether it is fleshing out the nuaces and commonplace mannerisms of the time or contextualising the subtle intetactions between the classes.

Putting thoughts to paper: Frances Llewellyn (Holly Sumpton)

With all the ‘star-crossed lovers’ in the play, one would be forgiven for thinking that the play has all the makings of a Shakespearean comedy. However, through O’Brien’s writing and Fraser’s direction, the acerbic nature of relationships are fleshed out and just like the fate of Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, the fallout from Mabel’s actions and behaviour are keenly felt by all…

© Michael Davis 2022

Distinguished Villa runs at Finborough Theatre until 1st October.

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