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Agnes Collander: An Attempt at Life (Susan Elkin reviews)

by Harley Granville Barker. Revised by Richard Nelson. Based on the original production at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath. Produced by David Adkin in association with Adam Roebuck & Panorama
performance date: 21 Feb 2019
venue: Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST


Part of Jermyn Street’s ‘Portrait Season’, this play by one of the 20th Century’s greatest practitioners, has languished unperformed for 120 years. Trevor Nunn directed it at the Theatre Royal Bath and this revival is based on that production.

Agnes – elegant, plausible, pretty and extraordinarily natural as Naomi Frederick deftly plays her – is a painter. She has left her husband because she wants to work and we first see her in her studio. The play is a pretty progressive (for its date) exploration of what Agnes calls ‘the sex question’. She begins an affair with fellow artist, the Danish Otto Kjoge (Matthew Flynn), is warmly attracted to her friend Alex (Harry Lister-Flint) and is nicely contrasted with their British neighbour Emmeline (Sally Scott) when the action moves to France.

It’s very much a play of ideas with a thinnish plot. Agnes wants the freedom to be herself but of course she is also attracted to men. Flynn’s earthy, forthright, larger-than-life character is at base, it transpires, a potential patriarchal controller. He is reminiscent of some of the men in DH Lawrence novels written at around the same time. Granville Barker, however, is much more sympathetic to women struggling for autonomy than Lawrence was.

Flynn’s is a fine performance. He is gruff, bossy, chirpy and ultimately devastated and it’s all done with an unusually convincing Danish accent. Scott does well as the rather repugnant, needy posturing Emmeline too – a character straight out of Jane Austen. Lister Smith has the most difficult role as a younger almost boyish man about as different from Flynn’s character as he could possibly be. I found it hard to believe in him and his naivety – or that Agnes would be, ultimately, drawn to someone with so little experience.

This play sits quite pleasingly in the intimacy of Jermyn Street Theatre which is celebrating its 25th birthday this year. Robert Jones, set and costume designer, takes us neatly to France simply by turning a big canvas – one of Otto’s paintings – on the back wall and I simply loved the flowing Edwardian clothes Agnes wears. Paul Pyant works some attractive minor miracles with the lighting too. It really does feel like France on a summer morning with the sun filtering through the shutters. Another nice touch is to have Cindy-Jane Armbruster, who plays two servant roles, singing French songs softly as she moves bits of the set into position between scenes.

None of that, however, prevents this from being a rather wordy play which doesn’t go anywhere much. It’s an interesting curiosity but nothing special.

 First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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