The play begins as a rather ho-hum drawing-room drama; somewhere offstage Henry Callifer, a high-profile atheist writer, is dying. Most of his family have gathered around him but until a mischievous child interferes, his son James (Paul Cawley) has been kept away, not even told of his father's illness. The reason his mother (Eileen Battye) doesn't want him there is connected to a mystery James has been trying to solve for the last 30 years, of an event in the potting shed in his teens that he's completely wiped from his memory. It seems pretty obvious what the dark secret is going to be (although I don't know how much this is deliberate misdirection - is it just seeing this in 2011 and stories of abuse being more common mean we assume that's what's happening, or would the original 1958 audience have jumped to the same conclusion?) but in the second act there's a nice metaphysical twist.
The production's very much a mixed bag, as is the play itself. Some of the performances are a bit duff (Cawley doesn't make for a very engaging leading man) while the opening act is pretty tedious, especially the melodramatic scenes where James and his ex-wife (Cate Debenham-Taylor) stare wistfully into the distance and say things like "I... just don't know... how to feel..." The second act is far superior, featuring the aforementioned change in the story's direction and some engaging performances from David Gooderson as a likeable psychiatrist (although with some rather dodgy-sounding methods,) Martin Wimbush as a drunken priest and Lorna Jones as his housekeeper. The third act wraps things up but is a bit anticlimactic after all that. Some of the casting seemed off as well, in terms of age - I don't mean Zoe Thorne, an adult playing a child and stealing every scene she's in, but Gooderson speaks to Battye as if he's from a much younger generation, but is at the very least the same age as her; and Jones doesn't seem anywhere near old enough to have been a housekeeper for the last 20 years. The play's enough to keep you occupied for a couple of hours but that's about it. The Finborough's remit of reviving long-lost plays frequently unearths some real gems (I'm still struggling to understand why Quality Street isn't a Christmas stalwart) but this time around it's not too hard to see how The Potting Shed could have got overgrown with weeds.
The Potting Shed by Graham Greene is booking until the 29th of January at the Finborough Theatre.