The Print Room at the Coronet, London ***
It’s hard to know which to applaud more: the first revival in 25 years of T S Eliot’s mysterious `psychological comedy’, The Cocktail Party or the venue. Not having visited The Print Room since its decampment to the Coronet, the venue probably takes it by a short head. The former Victorian theatre (designed by leading architect W G R Sprague of Aldwych, Wyndhams, Novello and Noel Coward theatres fame) that became a cinema and is now reverting back to a theatre is a hauntingly beautiful space – wide proscenium, semi-circular acting space, perfect sight lines though acoustically a challenge. And all around, remnants of the old decoration, scrubbed back to brick-work including the bar area. Quite magical. As for Abbey Wright’s production, it sits wonderfully within the space, lit by lighting designer, David Plater to enhance daily `reality’ and the shadowy other-worlds of metaphysical/spiritual yearnings.
Eliot’s 1949 verse drama – it’s verse is held in check here, little of the Murder in the Cathedral or Family Reunion rhyming couplets – is still engrossing in its mixture of styles: a `comedy of manners’ on the one hand and a searching, Catholic-influenced plunge into the unconscious life behind the social mask as the mutual antagonisms of a warring couple, Lavinia and Edward are laid bare before an unidentified guest who turns out, possibly, to be a psychiatrist-cum-Greater Power!
It’s easy to read Eliot’s own feelings about his troubled relationship with his wife, Vivien (the subject of Michael Hastings 2006 play,Tom and Viv) into all of this and by far the most engrossing part of Wright’s production comes in Lavinia and Edward’s exchanges with Hilton McRae’s `doctor/psychiatrist’ in a performance of great depth and clarity. Marcia Warren’s gossipy cocktail guest, Julia, too is a comic performance to treasure.
Unfortunately the younger members of the cast have a harder time converting Eliot’s stiff but often perceptive dialogue into something emotionally arresting. The central, `sacrificial’ role of Celia Coplestone – the lynch-pin of Eliot’s problematic message, suffering as a route to salvation – is sadly underwhelming here.
All the same and despite its shortcomings, this is a revival and a new home to celebrate. Can’t wait to see more.
The Cocktail Party runs at The Print Room at the Coronet to Oct 10, 2015
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2015