Finishing off the Finborough's current season of neglected plays from each of the home nations we come to Wales and Emlyn Williams' 1950 play Accolade. Designer James Cotterill turns the space into the book-lined study in a large Regent's Park house, setting things in the round so the audience are eavesdropping right in the middle of a very private moment, which is about to become very public. Will Trenting (Aden Gillett) is a controversial author whose books are full of wild sex but over the years he's become respected enough to be given a knighthood. This sign of him becoming part of the establishment leads to more press interest in him though and what the public don't know is that his raunchy writings come from personal experience - he still holds and participates in the occasional sex party in Rotherhithe, all with his wife Rona's knowledge and permission. At the most recent orgy Will inadvertently did something particularly heinous and now a journalist (Graham Seed) with a personal axe to grind has incriminating photos and blackmail in mind.
The Finborough's policy of reviving lost classics has the inevitable downside of occasionally reviving plays that were lost for a reason but this is one of those that feels not only very much of its time but also incredibly current. Simply making allusions to orgies doesn't shock like it might have done in 1950 (in fact most of tonight's audience were a school party) but the idea of people in the public eye having every fault exposed and judged couldn't be more whatever-this-decade-is-called. Williams, who was himself openly bisexual, is arguing for tolerance, because (like Will's books, whose beautifully-bound covers conceal a world of sex) everyone has a secret that someone, somewhere, will consider unforgivable. As his young son (adult actor Patrick Osborne) says, "you can't be as bad as the things you've done."
Blanche McIntyre's production ratchets up the tension inconspicuously and brings forward Williams' recurring themes without hitting you over the head with them - for instance with a writer as protagonist other authors' work is always bubbling under the surface: Jekyll & Hyde, Macbeth (one character even has the first name "Thane") and Dickens in general, the explicitly stated conclusion being we wouldn't have half the literature we do if all artists were saints. What's flawless here though is the casting, starting with the family trio of Gillet, Osborne and the fantastic Saskia Wickham as the stoical Rona, Alan Francis' faithful secretary¹, Patrick Brennan's sniffy publisher, Emma Jerrold as a family friend, Simon Darwen and Olivia Darnley's cockney "party" enthusiasts and Seed's blackmailer, whose overt friendliness suggests his sinister purpose right from the start. I don't often feel the need to list the entire cast but there's nobody here who doesn't get their show-stealing moment and they make this show more than the sum of its parts.
Accolade by Emlyn Williams is booking until the 28th of February at the Finborough Theatre (returns only.)
¹Francis' programme bio didn't help me place where I'd seen him before, so fortunately it eventually clicked that he was Alan Partridge's driver in Knowing Me, Knowing Yule so I wasn't left scratching my head all night