Review: Rupert Goold's gambles on his Las Vegas set Merchant of Venice at the Almeida
Festive season review: Strictly for grown ups - Booty and the Biatch, Lost Theatre

Review: Accolade, St James Theatre in a contemporary context and a rising star

Alexander Hanson and Abigail Cruttenden in Accolade, St James Theatre

Accolade is a brilliantly written and performed play but I couldn't decide whether it was of its time or transcends its 1950's setting.

It shocked sensitive middle class audiences at the time it was first staged not only for the infidelity plotline but the manner of that infidelity. Sitting watching it 60 years later it feels shocking for what I think is a very different reason.

Written by Emlyn Williams, it follows the story of avant garde novelist and family man Will Trenting (Alexander Hanson) who is about to be knighted in the New Year honours. Will leads a double life and his publisher is worried that the press will find out.

He likes to escape from the social constraints of his middle class life to spend time in pubs in less salubrious parts of London and throwing orgiastic parties. The social and sexual freedom not only liberates him but also inspires his plots and some of his characters in his award winning novels. Its a necessary relief valve which enables him to carry on living among the higher ranks of society.

Playing the artistic temperament or literary equivalent to a method actor off against something more acceptable to a conservative society is not the only way in which Williams was wrong-footing his audience at the time.  He also gives Will an understanding and accepting wife  in the form of Rona (Abigail Cruttenden) who confesses to having always been attracted to his wilder, impulsive side. And, his friends from his other life husband and wife Harold (Jay Taylor) and Phyllis (Olivia Darnley) seem like all round good eggs who just happen to go swinging on the weekends. It's all very matter of fact for them.

You can see how all this would have caused a sharp intake of breath. In 2014 it takes a lot more than all of this to shock. Perhaps Rona's acceptance and understanding is a little surprising but then had it been otherwise it would have made this a very different play.

What does shock in a contemporary context is what ultimately brings Will and his family's lives crashing down but not for reasons you might think. Will's most recent 'party' unwittingly involved a 14-year-old girl resulting in her father (Bruce Alexander), a failed writer, trying to blackmail the novelist.

In the 1950s the scandal is the orgy rather than the fact that a 14-year-old has essentially been groomed for sex because that is what Will's party friends have done. If you set the play in the last few years how different it would all feel. Rona does question the fact that the girl is only a few years older than their son Ian (Sam Clemmett) but it is a point that as left dangling. You can just imagine the tabloid headlines.

One review I read focused on the hypocrisy of society in devouring Will's slightly racy novels and yet attacking him for actually having experienced the life he writes about. And yes it is hypocritical and nothing has changed there. But there is a point in the play where it is suggested that the girl is in some way to blame for looking older than she is. It left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

So yes Accolade does transcend time in a certain sense but this story would be handled very differently now, so in that sense it is definitely of its time.

Accolade ran at the St James Theatre from 12 November until 13 December.

* I can't write about Accolade without mentioning Sam Clemmett. He is the true victim in the play having had his childhood innocence robbed and his life turned upside down.

The scene when his father has to sit him down and explain what he has done before he reads it in the press or hears about it is one that will stay with me for a very long time. You can see him mentally wrestling with what his father is telling him, see his innocence begin to fall away.

His stoic acceptance of the life he is losing, being stained by the sins of his father, being withdrawn from school and his friends is both a heartbreaking demonstration of the unconditional love a child feels for their parents.

Clemmett is definitely one to watch. I had to look up his age as he is so convincing as a child. He's 20, just in case you were wondering.


Jay Villiers who plays Will Trenting's publisher Thane was in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with Judi Dench who was Alice to Mr W's Peter in Peter and Alice last year.