Written by the former chief drama critic of The Times, Charles Morgan, The River Line began life as a novel in the 1940s before being adapted for the stage by Morgan in 1952. Critics at the time were polarised by Morgan’s work, some loved it, others hated it. Nearly 60 years on and this rather inconsistent play seems likely to provoke a similar response.
Drawn from Morgan’s own wartime experiences, the play opens in 1947 in Gloucestershire. An American (Edmund Kingsley) is staying with the Anglo-Belgian couple who aided his escape from France during the Second World War by way of the clandestine route from which the play takes its name. It quickly becomes apparent that there were others involved in their escapade and one of their number, a young English Major called “Heron” (Twilight‘s Charlie Bewley), was killed by one of them for being a German spy. From here the play moves back and forth in time, sandwiching flashbacks with scenes set in the 1947 present, gradually filling in the blanks while setting things up for a “twist” that will link the protagonists, the Anglo-Belgian’s family friends and the American’s would-be girlfriend, Valerie (Lydia Rose Bewley).
At its best The River Line is drily amusing, poignant and thought-provoking piece of writing. There is some gentle mockery of the English obsession with retaining a “stiff upper lip”, but this all comes within the wider and more serious context of illustrating the potentially devastating effects that secrets and silence can have on relationships and one’s own peace of mind.
Aside from one shaky American accent, the quality of the performances is really very strong. Christopher Fulford, as the haunted Commander Warburton, is a simmering study in passive-aggression. Lyne Renee lends an impressive mix of grace, emotion and stoicism to Warburton’s wife Marie, while Dave Hill plays her Teutonophobe father Pierre in comedic yet never farcical fashion.
The tiny Jermyn Street Theatre is an incredibly intimate space and, with no curtain, almost no “them and us” with regards to players and audience, there is nowhere for the actors to hide. The cast do a sterling job, and the first two Acts of Anthony Biggs’ production are captivating. Unfortunately it is at this point that things start to unravel.
The first Act sketches an outline of the story, the second Act adds lucidity and colour and leaves the audience eagerly anticipating what will come next. But the Morgan’s play seems to lose focus in the final Act, which is deeply unsatisfying and replete with overwrought monologues about art, poetry and duty. The ending is also far too convenient; it’s almost like a painter, having created a textured, multi-chromatic, and complex piece, had thought: “Sod it, let’s just colour the rest of it grey.”
The play itself walks a fine line between pathos and pretension, but the cast and creative team have done the best with the material they have. The result is an at times stimulating production but perhaps not one for the easily conflicted.