by Kate O’Brien
Directed by Hugh Fraser
Finborough Theatre – until 1 October 2022
The Finborough has a rich and noble history of rediscovering lost dramatic gems, alongside their programme of new work (this year’s Bacon and Pennyroyal remain two of my favourite new plays since theatres re-opened post-pandemic), and Kate O’Brien’s family tragicomedy, seldom seen since it’s 1926 premiere, continues that line of programming. In all honesty, Distinguished Villa is a little clunky and unlikely to be turning up in the West End or at the National any time soon, but it offers a stimulating, emotionally engaging couple of hours in the theatre that has a surprisingly contemporary spin on subjects such as mental health and the limits imposed on women’s lives, which is remarkable considering that it is nearly a century old.
O’Brien’s play is set in the living room of the Hemworth family’s Brixton home (dubbed “Distinguished Villa” by approving neighbours) and is populated by a dramatis personae of satisfyingly vivid figures. Matriarch Mabel, in Mia Austen’s witty performance, is a socially mobile monster in a pinny, obsessed with keeping up appearances, endlessly bemoaning her fragile health -although she’s probably the most robust character on stage- and blithely unaware of the anguish of husband Natty (Matthew Ashforde, impressive in a complex role) who is clearly suffering from some sort of advanced but undiagnosed form of depression. Then there’s Gwendolyn, Mabel’s not-as-innocent-as-she-looks sister, a tantalisingly mysterious female lodger and a pair of contrasting gentlemen callers.
The somewhat meandering first half takes it’s time setting all this up: it’s perfectly watchable, thanks in no small part to the generally superb performances, but feels a little static, something which Hugh Fraser’s otherwise accomplished direction can’t do much about. The second act is more plot-driven and considerably more dynamic. An illicit affair, an unwanted pregnancy, a shocking tragedy and men behaving (very) badly: all these crop up, and if the transitions between themes and tones are sometimes ponderous, that’s a flaw in a play feels like a precursor to Noel Coward’s rather more disciplined This Happy Breed: O’Brien gives us beautifully crafted dialogue and especially compelling female characters, but can’t seem to make up it’s her mind if she wants Distinguished Villa to be a domestic comedy or an old fashioned melodrama.
Holly Sumpton is magnetic but unknowable as the elusive Frances, and Tessa Bonham Jones finds real emotional heft in younger sister Gwendolyn’s conflict and terror. Brian Martin is winningly ardent and skilfully negotiates some pretty clumsy writing as the young man torn between them. Simon Haines is hugely impressive as the urbane upper class gent who turns out to be a lot less charming and honourable when the mask slips. Ashforde handles Natty’s existential crisis with real compassion, and Austen is a spiky, nervy joy as his unloving Mrs. Mim Houghton’s gorgeously detailed set and Carla Evans’s costumes help root these figures in an entirely convincing historical period.
Ultimately, Distinguished Villa is no world beater but still has a certain resonance; whatever it’s flaws, it never prompts the thought, as some disinterred scripts tend to do, that there is a myriad of obvious reasons why it hasn’t been produced in decades. It’s certainly hard to imagine a better production of it than this one.