If you had to choose a week in the last 60 years to stage the first major revival of Graham Greene’s The Living Room, then last week was it. Greene’s first play deals with Catholic morality and the fall-out caused by an adulterous affair. With newspapers awash with resigning popes and cardinals and the culmination of the Vicky Pryce trial, opening last Friday looks like spectacularly good luck. Or does it? Because with the themes of the play being kicked up again so readily in the public consciousness, the climate makes the play feel both incredibly timely and hopelessly out-of-date.
The play itself is set in the 1950s, in a living room that is not a living room. It’s a cramped and chintzy nursery that in Cherry Truluck’s evocative design looks like it’s been hit by an incendiary bomb. A Tetris board of blocky fragments makes up the back wall, with blown out and blank picture frames hanging between two beaten-up old doors, weathered, flaky and smeared a sort of shit-brown. Yet it’s not an external threat that has shaped the odd look of the house but an internal one. A fear from those that live there, two old sisters, Teresa and Helen Browne, and their brother, the wheelchair-bound priest, Father James, that death will soon snuff them out while they sleep in their beds. Rooms in this house are closed off once someone dies there, so the three that remain are forced to live in an ever smaller, creepier circle of rooms – hence the nursery doubling as the aptly-named living room.
The action starts when Rose, played here with an errant school-girlishness by Tuppence Middleton, turns up to live with her great aunts and uncle. Rose is accompanied by family friend and local psychology lecturer Michael Dennis, who, despite their 30-year age gap, is having a fairly riotous affair with her.
When the affair is discovered, the ideas of the play can finally find their voice, and we have the whole gamut: the analytical psychologist warring with the compassionate priest; the young girl against her staunch elders; discussions on morality, evil, faith, love, each tossed and bandied with the same slightly stolid didacticism typical of that period of British theatre after the War and before John Osborne – think perhaps of An Inspector Calls. Kenneth Tynan called The Living Room the “best first play of its generation”, but with Greene being 46 when he wrote it, and it being staged just three years before Look Back in Anger, it’s not exactly clear to which generation Tynan was referring. It is, in essence, an old-fashioned play, especially in its treatment of religion.
Whether or not Greene was a Catholic writer or merely a writer who happened to be Catholic is unclear, but the entanglement is not resolved in The Living Room. Father James, measuredly played here by Christopher Timothy, is perhaps the warmest and most sympathetic character in the play, but his declarations to Rose that she should not question the mysterious ways of God drew, at times, titters and chuckles from the audience – an audience that, rightly or wrongly, fancied itself 60 years older and wiser than the play.
But perhaps it’s a play we disregard too readily. And one that deserves to be looked at again, away from the hardened glare of an off-West End audience suspiciously wary of Ratzinger, O’Brien and Pryce-gate. There are some remarkable performances too, and special mention need be made of Christopher Villers’ beta-male Michael, a performance which makes him pathetic and worrisome rather than overtly pervy, and Diane Fletcher’s severe and matronly Helene, who is arguably the hawk-eyed villain of the piece. Emma Davies’ cameo in the second half as Michael’s wife is also incredibly strong, and the short scene she shares with Rose is perhaps the play’s finest – or at least most enduring.
It’s a scene in which Davies’ character breaks down and begs Rose not to take away her husband, and finishes with the two women on hands and knees mirroring each other, the older woman sobbing and broken, the younger consoling but frightened. In a play that often feels at odds with contemporary morality and modern attitudes to faith and sin, it is a tableau that communicates perhaps the only theme of the play that feels ageless and incontrovertible: love will get us all in the end.