‘The Governess’, a forgotten play by Patrick Hamilton, has been recently unearthed, having lain undisturbed for decades. Roy Marsden’s new production, currently being shown at Richmond Theatre, attempts to bring to life this short but brilliant play from the writer of ‘Gas Light’ and the better known ‘Rope’, which was immortalized in Hitchcock’s 1948 film. ‘The Governess’ is less self-important than ‘Rope’, there’s less of the religious and political lecturing, and the climax is far more satisfying and slick. The natural simplicity of the play also allows for less reliance on props and furniture, allowing Marsden to give his set a straightforward but beautifully painted appearance. The attention to detail tugs the audience through to this world of décor and deception.
The three leads of the play, Jenny Seagrove as ‘Ethel Fry’, Colin Buchanan as ‘George Drew’ and Peter Bowles as ‘Detective Inspector Rough’ (who also appears in ‘Gas Light’) are all tremendous. Seagrove slides between curt and seductive with relative ease and, though her relationship with Buchanan seems a little unconvincing at first, she shines in the second half and distinguishes herself from the rest of the cast. Buchanan puts in a Henchard-like performance as the bullish Drew, his stout build and the deep tones of his voice (which occasionally seem to be parodying his own accent) giving him a remarkable authority that is visible from the moment he walks on stage and is at his bullish best when he comes into conflict with Bowles. Yet the star of the show is Bowles himself; he has Hamilton down to a tee. Sharp and subtle delivery of lines, excellent energy and stage presence, he dominates the play from the moment he walks on. He uses his quiet, powerful voice to play with the audience, drawing genuine laughter for the first time in the production. It’s a fantastic role and Bowles is wonderfully adept at fulfilling its true potential. To not see him in a production of ‘Gas Light’ in years to come would be sorely disappointing.
However, these three are too often let down by the rest of the cast. Carolyn Backhouse puts in a solid performance as ‘Winifred Drew’ and Libby Gore and Mary Ryder are convincingly staunch and meek respectively as ‘Kate’ and ‘Nurse’. Lydia Orange as ‘Ellen Drew’ improves in the second half with a sleepwalking scene but takes a while to find her feet. Yet the other two male characters, Robert Rees and Matthew Rixon are visibly weak links, too loud and unsubtle in their delivery to click with Hamilton’s dialogue, though Rees is stronger in the second half when he has to appear inebriated. Despite these issues, the rest of the cast supports them sufficiently to keep the performance flowing.
This is a gripping production, half way between ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘Woman in Black’. Marsden’s initial genius was to unearth this play, which has led to an excellent show; we can only hope for a resurgence of appreciation for all Hamilton’s work and of ‘The Governess’ in particular.
‘The Governess’ will be at Richmond Theatre until 15th June.