Patrick Hamilton is perhaps better known as a playwright than a novelist. His notable stage works Rope and Gas Light are both successful thrillers adapted into Hollywood films (with the latter, Hamilton even made an addition to the English language, with his play creating the verb ‘gaslight’ meaning ‘to convince someone of their own insanity’). So Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation of Hamilton’s wartime novel The Slaves of the Solitude seems a natural fit, introducing the heroine Miss Roach to the world of theatre which Hamilton knew so well.
And Wright’s new play does bring to life some of Hamilton’s sparkling glimpses into wartime ennui. It details the goings on at the Rosamund Tea Room, a boarding house in Thames-Lockdown (aka Henley-on-Thames), as Miss Roach (Fenella Woolgar) becomes more unhinged by fellow boarders Mr. Thwaites (Clive Francis) and the newly arrived Vicky Kugelmann (Lucy Cohu). She finds few ways to escape her compatriots, and director Jonathan Kent does a good job of creating a bustling atmosphere in the Rosamund Tea Room that instils a certain claustrophobia. Woolgar as Miss Roach brilliantly demonstrates an increasing need for solace and peace, a time of reflection that seems as much a luxury in wartime as butter or eggs, even as she recognizes that she is deeply alone.
Wright also does well to bring out much of the humour in Hamilton’s novel, with Miss Roach absurdly preferring her surname to her first name ‘Enid’, and Mr. Thwaites’s pretentious butchering of the English language. Francis bounces about with an overstated pomp while seducing Cohu as the sultry yet mysterious Vicky. And Daon Broni as the Lieutenant Pike, an American soldier who takes a fancy to Miss Roach, is rightly irreverent and aloof. They both contrast nicely with Woolgar’s consistent disquietude and incite some laughter, as do the other guests of the Tea Room.
But the plays lacks the atmosphere of suspense and ambiguity that fills Hamilton’s other plays as well the original novel; an atmosphere so suffocating that it propels Miss Roach to challenge her arch-nemesis Thwaites. But here, in a relatively stagnant set that mainly shows the dining room of the home, not enough is done to demonstrate an offstage atmosphere of wartime anxiety. The peripheral theatre of war does not feel like a significant presence onstage, even though it is the main reason for these people even knowing each other and a real catalyst for the action.
So even with solid performances alongside a story that is subtly poignant, what results is a somewhat deflated sequence of events that lose steam as they go along. Wright attempts to mimic the book by changing the order of events onstage. But this seems more like a clever decision than one to evoke Miss Roach’s sense of paranoia. It’s entertaining, but it just isn’t very illuminating. And with a few hiccups involving set changes, The Slaves of Solitude is left feeling a little unsteady.
The Slaves of Solitude is on until 25 November 2017 at the Hampstead Theatre. Click here for more details.