Trelawny of the Wells, Donmar Warehouse, London

Though film has made his name to date (most recently last year’s Anna Karenina), director Joe Wright has theatre in his blood: his parents ran the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in north London. So it’s apt that for his stage debut, he chooses a work that revels in the potential of theatre, fondly celebrates its practitioners and muses on its transient nature. Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1898 comedy is a play about plays and players. Looking back to the 1860s, when melodramatic excess yielded to a more naturalistic style, it mischievously tackles the change through a romantic story that shifts from real to stage life.

The Trelawny of the title is Rose (sweet, but feisty Amy Morgan), flower of the Sadler’s Wells troupe, who abandons acting to live in Cavendish Square with the starchy relatives of her aristocratic beau Arthur (Joshua Silver). But stifling evenings of whist bore Rose into a stupor and she flees back to the footlights, only to discover that she has lost the knack of emoting in grand style. It takes a new play, penned by fellow thespian Tom Wrench, who favours a more realistic type of drama, to release Rose’s true acting talent and to reunite her on stage with Arthur (now become an actor). Stage life and real life blur into one.

Wright foregrounds the drama’s meta-theatrical streak, playfully matching style to content. The early scenes are staged with deliberate and ebullient theatricality, as characters dine on rubbery hams and dust the painted backdrops. The showdown in Cavendish Square, sundering hero and heroine, is delivered with melodramatic flourish. But as the troupe begins to stage Wrench’s drama, the style shifts to become more naturalistic.

It’s a clever approach, raising questions about depicting “reality” on stage and the role of performance in everyday life (the cast double up as actors and “respectable” citizens) and spying in the play innovations to come. But the concept is often too strenuously driven home. The plot (even with amendments by Patrick Marber) is slow and the cast seem to be working anxiously hard: many comic moments fall flat or are pushed too hard.

The staging comes into its own though as it shifts style, and as the piece celebrates the transient, yet enduring nature of theatre. Ron Cook is very poignant as Arthur’s crusty old grandfather, suddenly thawed by memories of Edmund Kean, and Peter Wight and Maggie Steed are deeply touching as two hammy old actors facing up to life as has-beens.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.