Review – Waste by Granville Barker at the Almeida

Wednesday 1 October 2008

The credit must be thoroughly crunching.

After rattling around in in the less-than-full Donmar auditorium at Monday night’s Creditors the Whingers witnessed another rare event last night: the Almeida auditorium less-than-packed to the rafters.

Perhaps the theatre-going public just couldn’t get excited about Harley Granville Barker’s Waste. Perhaps, like Phil, they assumed it to be a piece of agitprop about the sin of not recycling.

If they did believe that, many of those who turned up were clearly disappointed as the auditorium displayed even more empty seats after the interval. Perhaps it was due to Phil’s new fragrance.

The Whingers had some sympathy (how often do you hear that?) with them; they were themselves slightly ambivalent about returning for the remainder of the marathon (4 act 3 hour) show.

Return they did. But did they make the right decision?

Harley Granville Barker‘s Waste had a troubled history. Written in 1907 it was banned by the censor and not performed publicly until 1936 in a completely a rewritten version (which is the one you can see at the Almeida). Its only “performance” was a private reading in which various parts were taken by Granville Barker, H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. What wouldn’t the Whingers have given to seen that? If only it hadn’t clashed with Phil’s mangling night (mangling of his washing, not his writing on that occasion) what tales Phil would have to dine out on.

At his wit’s end over the state of British theatre (again, sympathy from the Whingers) Granville Barker added a hyphen to his name, retired and became and academic (see article by Benedict Nightingale in The Times).

In a nutshell, Waste tells the story of the rise and fall of Henry Trebell (Will Keen, phenomenally grounded) who seduces the married Amy O’Connell (Nancy Carroll, marvellously loose) who according to HGB’s stage directions is “a charming woman, if by charming you understand a woman who converts every quality she possesses into a means of attraction, and has no use for any others.”*

Trebell is drafted into the government of the day to oversee the disestablishment of the Church of England, a sub-plot which, frankly, the Whingers could have done without. Fascinating as the subject is, they struggled to make connections between the very detailed philosophising and the main dramatic arc of the play which is that he makes Amy pregnant and she has an illegal abortion which goes wrong resulting in her death during the interval.

What a shocking, moving second half follows. The stunning, moving final scenes between Henry and his sister Frances (Phoebe Nicholls, crushingly impassive) actually moved Phil to get out his hanky for purposes other than to absorb the drips from his nose.

Despite the four acts, three hours and somewhat over-detailed philosophising, the Whingers utterly commend this production to you for the following qualities:

  • HGB’s very modern, dynamic, witty brilliant writing.
  • The almost National Theatre-like extravagance of the play: billions of characters and a set which revolves.
  • The astonishingly sensitive direction of Samuel West (who also helmed the wonderful revival of Dealer’s Choice) whose ability to direct quiet, intimate scenes which compel is unparalleled in the Whingers’ humble opinions.
  • John Leonard‘s wonderful resonant ambient sound (cars, birdsong, clocks)
  • The live-on-stage piano playing
  • The bargain programme (£2.50)
  • The top-notch acting from the entire cast (and some very convincing envelope-addressing from Hugh Ross.

Waste is no walk in the park but if you are interested in merely seeing the finest acting and direction currently in the West End, it’s a must.


* HGB’s opening Act One stage directions read thus:

Facing you at her piano by the window, from which she is protected by a little screen, sits MRS. FARRANT; a woman of the interesting age, clear-eyed and all her face serene, except for a little pucker of the brows which shows a puzzled mind upon some important matters. To become almost an ideal hostess has been her achievement; and in her own home, as now, this grace is written upon every movement. Her eyes pass over the head of a girl, sitting in a low chair by a little table, with the shaded lamplight falling on her face. This is LUCY DAVENPORT; twenty-three, undefeated in anything as yet and so unsoftened. The book on her lap is closed, for she has been listening to the music. It is possibly some German philosopher, whom she reads with a critical appreciation of his shortcomings. On the sofa near her lounges MRS. O’CONNELL; a charming woman, if by charming you understand a woman who converts every quality she possesses into a means of attraction, and has no use for any others. On the sofa opposite sits MISS TREBELL. In a few years, when her hair is quite grey, she will assume as by right the dignity of an old maid. Between these two in a low armchair is LADY DAVENPORT. She has attained to many dignities. Mother and grandmother, she has brought into the world and nourished not merely life but character. A wonderful face she has, full of proud memories and fearless of the future. Behind her, on a sofa between the windows, is WALTER KENT. He is just what the average English father would like his son to be. You can see the light shooting out through the windows and mixing with moonshine upon a smooth lawn. On your left is a door. There are many books in the room, hardly any pictures, a statuette perhaps. The owner evidently sets beauty of form before beauty of colour. It is a woman’s room and it has a certain delicate austerity. By the time you have observed everything MRS. FARRANT has played Chopin’s prelude opus 28, number 20 from beginning to end.

These fabulous stage directions really should be provided as sur-titles for added entertainment. Poor old Sam West. Imagine the rehearsals. “Right, could you just give me a “wonderful” face – full of proud memories and fearless of the future. Lovely, thank you. Now, Jeany, I want you to rest that book in your lap as though it were possibly some German philosopher. Can you do that? Gorgeous. Exactly right.”

21 Responses to “Review – Waste by Granville Barker at the Almeida”

  1. Zau Says:

    I’m surprised you liked this play, my friend and I went out of the performance commenting “mmm, I wonder what the Whingers will make of this…”

    I am still trying to decide how much I liked this play. I have the feeling I didn’t get some things – British politics are a such a mystery to me (Church of England what?). I would admit to being there just for Max Bennet but that would make me too much of a girly girl.

    However, the scene at the end between Henry and his sister sitting on the desk is one of the best theatre moments I’ve seen this year. Even if the rest of the play went a bit over my head.

  2. Mark I Says:

    @ Whingers – last paragraph – you’re too funny!

    I’ll practice “resting my book in my lap as though it were possibly some German philosopher” in the train tomorrow, and see if anyone notices.

  3. What would a German philosopher be doing in your lap? No, I don’t want to know.

  4. intermezzo Says:

    I was one of the half-time casualties. I simply couldn’t face another hour of combat by bon mot. Or missing the last Victoria Line train.

    So it thawed out, eh? This is why I should never see anything until the Whingers have sniffed it out and passed it fit for human consumption first.

    Incidentally, were you the two tall handsome gentlemen in row E? The tight grip on the drinks made me wonder.

  5. @ intermezzo: we actually were the penny-pinching men in the restricted view seats in row A of the circle but if the people in row E were handsome we’ll say yes in order to enhance our reputations.

    If you’re not enjoying something you are entirely right to leave at the interval. We’re not going to crow just because we stuck it out for a change.

  6. tim Says:

    HGB was an Edwardian liberal, the equivalent of a modern-day Islington type. When he wrote the play in 1907, the dis-establishment of the Church of England was on the agenda of the Liberal Party, because most of its voters belonged to Nonconformist churches and resented the dominance of the C of E, which was also regarded as a bastion of Conservatism.

    How long ago that seems !

    The modern-day Islington equivalent would be the disestablishment of the monarchy, or the abolition of Eton.
    So one would have to take those “dis-establishment” discussion scenes as being metaphorical or paratextual in relevance as far as the Almeida audience is concerned, rather than literal.

    I hope that this clarifies things for you, Zau.

  7. Helen Smith Says:

    Gosh. It sounds wonderful. How does it measure up on the Bagnold Barometer?

  8. Caroline Says:

    Well, this sounds like an each-way bet, at least. Although I walked out of “The Voysey Inheritance” at the National, and before the interval, even (I took advantage of a scene change – too much endless talk which didn’t seem to be leading anywhere or engaging me), I know others enjoyed it and I thought I should give HGB another chance. So I booked to see this, but, being cowardly, right at the end of the run, which is what I do when I think I ought to try something but am not in the mood for it just yet. The Almeida hasn’t let me down so far…

  9. Zau Says:

    @tim: thank you, that actually helps. The situation of the Spanish church and its relationship with the political parties has always been a bit different so some of the subtleties were lost on me.

    I have tickets to see this play once more at the end of October so hopefully I’ll get more out of it by that time.

  10. Nige Says:

    A brilliant play, wonderfully and sensitively done. My other half came out noting it was so wordy, it should be on radio, but as I boldly mentioned at the time, (she not being readily contradicted) much of the texture came through the staging. I don’t think the philosphising is overdone; the characters are believably politicos whose language was actually clearer than their modern equivalents. What the play requires is a bit of concentration and attention to the actors’ detail. If such attention is given, you see how well Sam West and his cast and crew have done. Pheobe Nicholls in particular is wonderfully adept; fantastic timing and nuance. I intend to go back for another go; but as the review says, I’ll take my hanky next time…

  11. Simone Says:

    This is why I should never see anything until the Whingers have sniffed it out and passed it fit for human consumption first.

    @ intermezzo: My sentiments exactly. The amount of money that I have saved on theatre that I have missed following a WEW review should actually go to some kind of a WEW fund or something. What say you Whingers? 😉

  12. We like your idea very much, Simone.

    We are currently looking into a pay-per-view model of the kind employed on Sky for major sporting events.

    Another idea currently being debated across the Whingers’ board table (although currently only in a very early draft form on various beer mats) is to introduce a “friendship” system like those employed at the Donmar, the National etc by which people would pay to achieve some meaningless level of friendship with us.

    Or we won’t mind if you just send us cheques willy nilly.

  13. Note, too, how many reviewers either didn’t notice or funked the only chance they might ever get to use the word: the view of one particular character can quite legitimately be described as antidisestablishmentarianism.

    The FT said it wouldn’t fit on a single line…

  14. We did think about it but we’re holding out for an opportunity to slip pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis into a review.

  15. Zau Says:

    “We did think about it but we’re holding out for an opportunity to slip pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis into a review.”

    Now you just have to wait until someone puts on a pretentious play about lung diseases. I’m sure the National Theatre is working on satifying you soon.

    Actually I came out of the RSC’s Love’s Labour’s Lost last Friday with this sudden urge to inflict the word “honorificabilitudinitatibus” on any random passer-by.

  16. I did accuse the FT subs of being too floccinaucinihilipilificatory…

  17. Graham Says:

    I think the friendship scheme is a great idea:

    House Merlot £20 – entitles you to an outing to see Shakespeare in the Cottesloe

    Chianti £50 – you get a ticket for a West End show (max 90 mins)

    Vosne-Romanée Jean Grivot, 2000 £100 – a ticket for any theatre with a proscenium arch and a Dame of your choice

  18. @ WEW: I was told that being sat in between the WEW would have cost me a lot of money and that you waived it because it was my first outing with you guys. I am all for the Friends scheme! 😛

  19. Derek Says:

    Too tame, needed more emotional welly, as the hours passed the play began to list like an overloaded, leaky freighter. Nancy Carroll brought the play to life and for her pains was expunged from the second half; taken off, given a dicky abortion and died. I liked the play but thought this production, despite all the gush, too emotionally watered down.

  20. I already booked to see this one you guys!

  21. […] Even the West End Whingers raved about the production – click here. […]

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