Distinguished Villa by Kate O’Brian is a real find for Aardvark Theatre who, in association with Neil McPherson at Finborough Theatre have the play currently running at SW10s award winning theatre hot-spot. The play is directed with sensitivity and clarity by Hugh Fraser as he reveals the nuances and tensions of married life, both in the hoping and in the making and love is not always the glue that hold it all together.
First performed in London in 1926 O’Brian’s solid three act play fully deserves a revival as the social issues of family, marriage and power, both economic and emotional, still seem relevant. The emotional power in relationships can enhance a marriage or strangle it and in O’Brian’s play we are able to view the challenges faced by women and the few choice available to them.
Thankfully, the social pressures of snobbery, so pervasive and prevailing in the 20s, are perhaps something we feel relieved to have escaped and may not seem so relevant in the present day, but complex family dynamics are always in focus.
The title pf the play refers to the name of the house where the Hemsworth’s live. It was given by the locals because Mabel (the matriarchal figure played with a degree of venom by Mia Austin) keeps a refined house of respectability – so she believes. Mabel’s desire for acceptance and respectability are not just seen as social attributes but rather ones she instils on her family. Childless and married to Natty for 15 years she sees the longevity of the marriage as product of successfully holding on to these supposed virtues. She shares the marital home not only with Natty (movingly played by Mathew Ashforde) but also her younger sister, Gwen (Tessa Bonham Jones) and she also has a lodger, the clever and sophisticated writer Frances. This social mix allows O’Brian to explore the hypocrisy of family life and the snobbish and pernicious social mores of the day which not only divide communities but seek to keep people in their place. It is a suffocating environment where we are told refined people are not outspoken, where women must be married, and husbands should not be overbearing upon their wives. This happy household seems only to be distinguished by its pain as each character struggles to express themselves, verbally, sexually or imaginatively as they try to resist being pushed under be the overbearing social expectations of the day.
Act one is very evenly paced with character and emotional setting and the social pulse of the day does not miss a beat. However, caddish Alec, suitor to the lodger, makes for a delightful interruption to this seeming calm as he vocally and physically dominates the space and the women around him – which Simon Haines does with great style. Mabel demands respect from her family and is so busy with appearances that she ignores the emotional turmoil of husband Natty. Sister Gwen plods on with affection from a visiting beau, John (played by Brian Martin with an engaging demeanour that delights in the slow self-expression as he realises love, rather than simple attraction is possible). Holly Sumpton plays the lodger Frances, around whom John’s feelings are thoughtful, suggesting a real love – mutual respect and equal enhancement seem possible as they explore their feelings. All this is in contrast with the other relationships. Mabel bullies and exploits Natty and his affection. Mathew Ashforde plays Natty with depth and a profound sense of confusion and pain as he wrestles with a love-less marriage founded on social posturing and cruel words that have stripped him of his natty zest for life itself. I think O’Brian really does hit the target with this contrasting examination of love and attraction, and it is a credit to the company that they skilfully exploit what is not said, rather than what is. In this instance what you see is not what you get!
O’Brian of course also examines the lack of power of women, Mabel may be acerbic and sharp of nature but being childless in this community is probably a challenge, as is Gwen, the single sister, who fearfully realises that motherhood can only be played out with a man by her side – so find one she must. Lastly. Francis, an artist, creator and an outsider who can see all too clearly the dilemma of love and even she knows that it alone cannot counteract convention – so pain it is. Sumpton’s touching soothing vocal tones belie the fact that the individualism and self-gratification is not an option in this social cauldron. Ultimately, we see the sly and malicious sexual misconduct of Alec Webberley move through and move on from this supposed distinguished villa.
The Finborough theatre is a small space, but it packs a punch and certainly the quality of the work is exceptional with production values that defy their limited means. Costumed by Carla Evans with Jonathan Simpson designing lights the production captured both the atmosphere and style of the period. The period drawing room in Kerry Green adorned with walnut chairs and table – polished to shine – all perfectly placed along with pictures and plates on the wall against the sounds of a gramophone playing lyrical Irish tenors crooning ‘ I’ll take you home again, or ‘Ill walk beside you ‘ – renditions of longing and affection. O’Brian sadly shows us that despite the longing, Irish eyes (or otherwise) are not smiling here.
- Director Hugh Fraser
- Set Designer Min Houghton
- Lighting Designer Jonathan Simpson
- Sound Designer Edward Lewis
- Assistant Director Ella Fidler
- Stage manager Michael Simmons
Distinguished Villa is at Finborough Theatre from Tuesday, 6 September – Saturday, 1 October 2022, for tickets or more information please visit: finboroughtheatre.co.uk