Graham Greene's THE POTTING SHED was first performed in London and on Broadway in 1958. It has seldom been revived since. There's nothing particularly wrong with the play though critics over the years critics have deemed it dated in style and substance. The solid production at the Finborough Theatre proves that perhaps now, when atheism can be as doctrinaire as fundamentalist Chrstianity, it is again timely.
THE POTTING SHED is structured as a kind of mystery. The form goes back to Sophocles' OEDIPUS REX. Something happened to James Callifer when he was fourteen that he has totally forgotten and which his family has tried to erase. During the course of the play James is impelled to discover the secret and this family must deal with the consequences. There is no incest or murder here in this hyper-intellectual British family. The secret has metaphysical implications which change James and since the family are celebrated professional atheists -- the patriarch was the Richard Dawkins of his age -- upset his family. Has James gone mad because he has come to believe that he experienced a miracle? To accept his conviction is to admit that there is something more than -- or other than -- science and rationality. The play explores a mystery in the religious sense of the word. The question the revelation at the heart of the play poses is whether miracles happen. If they do, the family's staunch atheism is exposed as a sham. Graham Greene is writing in prose the sort of religious play in the mode of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry wrote in verse. There is a strong kinship between THE POTTING SHED and Eliot's THE COCKTAIL PARTY and THE FAMILY REUNION. Greene was a Catholic and his Catholicism permeates his work, but his approach to his religion was complex and far more modern than Eliot's. Faith and doubt go together in Greene's universe. There is little comfort in faith and God is always unknowable. Yet God does intervene in our world. Greene's plays are intrinsically dramatic because his faith is built on contradictions. I prefer his novels to the plays. There is something formulaic about his dramatic structure. It is too pat for his subject matter. He's a good playwright, but much more than a good novelist at his best. Seeing this production of THE POTTING SHED made me want to reread the novels. There's a new Hollywood film of his classic novel, BRIGHTON ROCK, coming out this Spring. Will Hollywood do justice to this complex writer? Probably not.
I enjoyed this production of THE POTTING SHED at the tiny Finborough. Svetlana Dimcovic staged and paced the play effectively on the small playing area. The playing area created by the walls of this oddly shaped building makes a natural box set that is a perfect size for this sort of drama. Given the brevity of the play, I would have cut one or both of the intervals to maintain tension (without intervals, the play runs less than two hours). Paul Cawley as James, the man discovering his past, was fine in the big moments. I never felt his spiritual emptiness in the first half of the play. He must go through a major change and I think it demands an actor with greater range than Cawley has. In essense we must see a man reborn in the third act but that depends on seeing the deadness before. I'm sure he was improvement over the original John Gielgud and pop star Cliff Richard in the 1971 revival (whose idea was that?). The other ten actors were well cast and more than adequate. If I am a bit dissatisfied, it is because I think more is at stake in the play for all the characters than these actors realized. Everyone underplayed a bit too much. Since I excoriated the cast of a previous Finborough production for chewing up the scenery, I am uncomfortable criticizing this group of good actors for not raising the emotional temperature enough. It's tricky to find the proper balance in a tiny space like the Finborough but I didn't feel that Eileen Battye in the crucial role as the matriarch holding the big secret was ever more than mildly piqued as if someone had breached a rule of etiquette when actually a thirty-year-old family secret is about to be exposed. It's more a question of listening and reacting than how the lines were spoken. I'm not sure one can totally avoid melodrama in this work, which is a kind of Agatha Christie mystery with deep religious implications.
Whatever my reservations, I am deeply grateful to the Finborough for giving me the opportunity to see this play again. And may I say I'm grateful to the friendly new owners of the nice wine bar downstairs for providing cleaner amenities. And I look forward to the new air conditioning system for this famously hot (in all senses of the word) performing space
THE POTTING SHED by Graham Greene. Finborough Theatre. January 13, 2011.