Emlyn Williams wrote a series of hit plays from the early 1930s into the 1950s (NIGHT MUST FALL and THE CORN IS GREEN among others). He also wrote two memoirs of his life up until 1935 in which he candidly chronicled his homosexual romances. Although he married in 1935, he continued to have sex with men. His 1950 play ACCOLADE, like Terence Rattigan's THE DEEP BLUE SEA (based on the suicide of a male lover), turned what is more credible as a tale of a homosexual secret life into a heterosexual one. Some say that Williams would have liked to make this tale of a famous writer who gets caught in a sex scandal about a homosexual scandal, but in the days of strict censorship the play would not have been produced. However, anyone who knows anything about Williams will know what the play is really about.
Williams's central character, Will Trenting, is about to be knighted. He is a celebrated author (Nobel Prize winning no less) who lives in a lovely Regents Park home with his doting wife and adolescent son. Will is admittedly a bit of a Jeckyll-Hyde character; sometimes respectable, but driven to orgiastic extra-marital sex. At one "dirty party" over a pub in a working class area of London, he has sex with a fourteen-year-old girl (she doesn't look fourteen) which opens him up to blackmail and scandal. His wife has always been exceedingly understanding (as was Williams's wife). At the end, the scandalous secret life is no longer secret and the family must live in exile in Guernsey, of all places. The situation is an intriguing one. In moving back and forth from respectability to orgiastic pleasure, Will also has to move back and forth from an upper middle class milieu to a working class one. He seems comfortable and happy in both. Indeed, his most faithful friends are working class. In typical British form of the period, sexual freedom is tied to the working class. The man who tries to blackmail him has social pretensions -- the worst sin in this play. Honesty is everything. It is also the seedier side of Will's life that fuels his writing.
This production at the tiny Finborough Theatre is the first production in London since the play's initial run sixty years ago. It's a good represenation of the play, well directed (Blanche McIntyre) and very strongly cast. The only disaster is the man playing the fourteen year old son -- he's obviously at least twice his character's age and taller than most of the other characters which make his scenes funny in ways Williams didn't mean. This isn't his fault. It's simply poor casting. Everyone is good, but the aptly named Graham Seed and Alan Francis are particularly strong as the seedy, pretentious blackmailer and the loyal secretary. If the supporting cast seemed stronger than the leads (Aidan Gillet as Will and Saskia Wickham as his wife) it is because the supporting roles are better written.
It was good to have the chance to see this play. I have written on it but never experienced it in the theatre. It doesn't stand up the way Rattigan's plays do, but thank heaven the major fringe theatres are willing to produce plays like this. The reviews have been very favorable and the run has sold out. Obviously there's also an audience for this sort of work. And I am grateful that small productions like this are still economically viable in London.
ACCOLADE by Emlyn Williams. Finborough Theatre. February 20, 2011.