Periodically during Graham Greene’s play, elderly Aunt Teresa crosses the stage to use the bathroom, pretending to be oblivious to all goings-on until she has once again left, upon which she may re-enter immediately with an expression of faux-innocence. Given that the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre’s toilets are indeed accessed across the stage, this feels cheekily like art imitating life. However, this is small beer in the collection of the Browne family’s idiosyncrasies, chief among which is closing off each room in which a member of the household has died (yes, that title is significant). The result is that in a huge house there is now barely enough space for the three elderly inhabitants and their new arrival, recently orphaned 20-year-old great-niece Rose.
When it becomes apparent that Rose is having an affair with married 45-year-old psychology lecturer Michael, the keystone of the family’s life assumes its full weight. One hesitates to describe Catholicism as another “idiosyncrasy”, but as practised by Aunt Helen, who would rather dedicate herself to ruining several earthly lives than risk an immortal soul, it becomes an instance of religious belief at its most unreasoning, a mere pretext for authoritarianism. More honourable is the soul-searching of wheelchair-bound Father James Browne.
This is Greene at his most introspective, using the human drama as an excuse to debate his own beliefs and uncertainties; Greene’s Brownes (ha!) are clearly authorial surrogates, and in some cases far from generous ones. It is frankly unsurprising that the play should have lain unrevived for 60 years since its première.
Tom Littler’s production for Primavera is accomplished, and taps into the mood of the work. Tuppence Middleton may be a little over-vexed as Rose (or it might be deliberate characterisation), but Christopher Timothy’s Father James is thoughtful and conscientious, and Caroline Blakiston and Diane Spencer sterling as his sisters. Designer Cherry Truluck skilfully turns the cramped basement of Jermyn Street into the cramped attic of the Brownes’ house.
Nevertheless, this is principally a man not even talking to his God but talking to himself about his God. The Catholic Church’s current relationship with sexual morality gives this revival a topicality of sorts, but not one that is in any way charitable towards the Church, still less as the piece never truly calls into question Greene’s bedrock of loyal faith.