Magazine article The Spectator

A Waspish World

Magazine article The Spectator

A Waspish World

Article excerpt

Drama critics do, just occasionally, have their uses: it was one of the greatest of my many predecessors in this column, Hilary Spurling, who more than 20 years ago campaigned to have the plays of Rodney Ackland recognised as some of the greatest of the century, and since then she and the directors Sam Walters and Frith Banbury have brilliantly continued the fight without as yet achieving outright victory.

Banbury, now in his middle eighties, was sadly too ill to complete the current production of Ackland's After October at the Minerva, but Keith Baxter has in his absence come up with a rich and rare revival of the drama which, in Ackland's lifetime, was his only real West End hit exactly 60 years ago.

Then, it was Ackland himself who played the role of the young dramatist whose longawaited first night turns out to be a fiasco, and for those who believe in him as the `English Chekhov' the experience must have been much akin to that of watching a young Anton playing Konstantin in The Seagull.

The Chekhovian parallels are easily drawn; everyone in After October wants something they are clearly not going to get in this life, whether it be theatrical success or romantic happiness or just a decent hot meal. The play aches with reality; Ackland himself had been a lodger in the house of the actress Mary Merrall who is clearly the inspiration for the role played here by Dorothy Tutin, just as Ackland himself is the young writer facing his first major flop. In a strong cast Nick Waring plays the son, with Murray Melvin as the equally failed poet who represents his conscience; a lot of 1930s backstage history is being worked out here in front of an audience, and, if Baxter's production sometimes goes a little manic in its determination never to bore, latterday theatregoers unlikely to be familiar with Ackland's waspish, bitchy world (he was a happily-married gay), that is a small price to pay for the return of a real curiosity.

In the end, the resonances here are not so much of Chekhov or Coward but rather of an American contemporary Thirties classic like Saroyan's The Time of Your Life or Kaufman-Hart's You Can't Take It With You, plays full of weird and wondrous eccentrics but shot through with a deep kind of melancholic nostalgia, that sense of a world about to disintegrate at least partly because of its own lethargic inability to face the new realities. …

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