Director Sean Mathias has tried to work a ‘thrilling’ atmosphere into his production of AccoladeJack Merriman with permission for Varsity

When the curtain goes up, it’s the convex shape of Accolade’s set design – a gorgeously ornate, decagonal 50s drawing room, bisected by the perimeter of the stage – that catches the eye. As the panelling curves round at the back, our attention is channelled to the outer hall, where characters potter up and down the stairs but into which the audience never ventures. That, and a pair of French windows to the right, are our only glimpses into the outside world – a world that will soon implode on novelist Will Trenting (Ayden Callaghan) and his domestic sanctum in Emlyn Williams’s long-forgotten, censor-defiant drama.

Williams is best remembered for The Corn Is Green, a chronicle of his real-life journey from illiterate Welsh miner’s son to Oxford undergrad. Other plays, like Night Must Fall, were early ‘stage thrillers’, penned in the 30s when the genre was finding its natural habitat in cinema. Director Sean Mathias has tried to work a ‘thrilling’ atmosphere into his production of Accolade – there’s ominous, foreboding music throughout, which is sufficiently moody but gestures to a pulsating climax that never quite arrives.

“The play belongs to Weeks, who is phenomenal"

Our protagonist, Trenting, is clearly a writer of some renown. Already a Nobel laureate, his once-scandalous novels, known for their sexual frankness, have now brought him a knighthood and a place alongside Hugo and Baudelaire in the canon. Curiously, D. H. Lawrence is never name-checked as a peer, which makes me wonder whether Trenting represents a kind of mid-century Lawrence – if Lawrence had lived in an era that embraced his genius, or, at least, pretended to. For when news breaks of Trenting’s secret private life – that his achievements are indebted to his open marriage and ‘swinger’ lifestyle, going off at weekends to orgies in South London – even close friends have to swallow their discomfort. This is not, initially, a problem: Trenting’s wife Rona (Honeysuckle Weeks) has long accepted his ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ nature, and when she gives the clear the noise dies down. The problem emerges with a disgruntled father (Narinder Samra) some months later; at his last ‘party’, Trenting unknowingly had sex with his 14-year-old daughter. And so, on a legal technicality, the sexual hypocrisy of 50s Britain – so voyeuristically invested in Trenting’s works but repulsed by their basis in real life – turns itself inside out.

This comes to a head in one particular scene, where the stiff, loyal publisher Thane (a cracking performance from David Phelan) puts on airs but then plies Trenting for details of his exploits (which, as far as we’re supposed to believe, disgust him). As performances go, however, the play belongs to Weeks, who is phenomenal. Having grown up watching Foyle’s War over my mum’s shoulder, I was enthralled by a totally distinct, crisp, commanding stage presence, one that puts into mind Juliet Stevenson or Kristin Scott Thomas, as Rona’s graceful, aristocratic composure is pressed increasingly under the mill by her rapidly depleting social status. Here’s to an Olivier nod if this production takes root in the West End.

“Mathias’s direction is slick and forever concerned with the imagerial product onstage”

Less transfixing is Callaghan in the lead, who speaks his lines in an odd sort of iambic metre and lacks the subdued charisma right for Trenting’s character. He’s neither convincingly iconoclastic or sufficiently contrite at alternate moments of strength and weakness, and the play’s power, more often than not, is reliant on his scene partners.

For the most part, these other cast members are superb – hats off especially to Sara Crowe, as the Trentings’ old friend, Jamie Hogarth, playing their butler Albert, and Sarah Twomey, as one half of Will’s slick ‘party friends’ (what a hat she has, too, complimenting a gorgeous daffodil dress and petticoat). Mathias’s direction is slick and forever concerned with the imagerial product onstage; bodies troop deftly on and off, and arrange themselves so that there’s always an intricate amount of distance between different factions in the room. This feels a little ostentatious at times, but the careful spatial plotting turns the stage into a wide-reaching marketplace of shouts and slick inflections, which uphold the strength of Williams’s blazing critique while powering through the shortcomings in his dialogue.


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All this concludes with a bizarre final image that crops up in the beginning, too: a surreal, translucent cylinder in which Trenting stands, like an alien in a specimen tank. In an otherwise ‘gritty’ drama, it feels out of place; I’ve no doubt Mathias means it as a nod to Trenting’s vulnerability (exposed behind glass casing) as well as his status as a kind of ‘superman’ of the modern age, embodying his social and sexual convictions. But I’m not convinced that the jarring, futuristic image isn’t there to baffle for the sake of baffling, and cover for an otherwise subdued finale. The play leaves us in 1950, but I’d like to think Trenting is swiftly redeemed a decade later – by a sexual revolution that he, and Williams, uncannily anticipated.

Accolade is showing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from Tuesday 19th until Saturday 22nd June, at 7:30pm.