St James’ Theatre, London

© Mark Douet

© Mark Douet

Take a spot of Rattigan (middle class English repression), add a spoonful of Coward (secret lives) and Priestley (outsider who overturns the apple cart) then a decisive twist of Welsh bohemian a la Dylan Thomas and what do you have? A rediscovered 1950s domestic drama that rings all sorts of contemporary bells, Emlyn Williams’s Accolade.

It’s remarkable how post 1956, pre-`kitchen sink’ plays keep turning up and turning out not to be half as bourgeois and comfortable as the young turks of the time, keen to throw them all out, thought them to be.

Accolade, recently unearthed by London’s most assiduous theatre sleuth (unerring nose for the forgotten and neglected), Finborough Theatre’s Neil McPherson, carries more than a whiff of scandal about it. Literary lion is awarded a knighthood. Appears to have it all: nice wife and son, house in Regent’s Park. The world at his feet.

Only, our `hero’ has a double life; shock, horror, he loves a bit of the louche, trundling off down to Rotherhithe for heavy drinking sessions and much else besides. All of which is common knowledge to his dear wife, an understanding soul who accepts his `excesses’ as part and parcel of his artistic soul.

But bingo. Come fame and the knighthood and suddenly, his private life is no longer his own.

Williams spins a meaty yarn. The melodrama is piled on thick. Will Trenting, for it is he, is caught on camera, in flagrante delicto with an under-age nubile schoolgirl. Cue blackmailer.

So far so predictable. But the curious thing about Williams and Accolade is that built into this otherwise conventional treatment lies an unexpectedly racier and  refreshingly challenging open approach to life that far outstrips its heavy-handed plotting.

Williams himself was bisexual and Accolade could be read as a barely disguised code for his homosexual side long before homosexuality became legalised and in a more candid way than Rattigan or Coward. It also has an emotional fluidity and perception that constantly takes one by surprise.

So forget the hammy coincidences and absurdities (Trenting a Nobel prize winner to boot? I don’t think so) and caricatures (Will’s `low life’ friends, Phil and Harold). Blanche McIntyre’s production headed by Alexander Hanson (not quite edgy enough) captures the decency as well as the seediness of the 1950s and boasts a sterling performance from Abigail Cruttenden as the loyal wife and Sam Clemmett, touching as their son who proves pivotal (Rattigan’s The Browning Version springs to mind as, in a different way, the `double life’ exposed in Dearden and Relph’s famous 1961 `coming out’ film, Victim).

Accolade too beautifully pinpoints the noxious climate that becoming a celebrity and `public’ figure inevitably brings in its wake. The mode may have changed from door-stepping hacks to Facebook and Twitter frenzy. But the price remains the same.