I’ve got to be honest – I’ve never heard of Emlyn Williams. I’m not quite sure whether that’s embarrassing or not. He’s described in the programme as ‘the welsh Noël Coward’, which didn’t exactly have me desperate to find out more.
A spattering of audience joined me at the St James Theatre for Williams’s 1950 play Accolade; the murky tale of novelist Will Trenting, whose penchant for sordid East End orgies and promiscuity is firmly at odds with his well-to-do family life and recent knighthood. The press come sniffing, and Sir William’s nimbly maintained facade comes crashing down around him.
When it comes to plays from this era or older, my primary questions always concern just what the play has to say to a contemporary audience, whether it merits a revival, whether it remains relevant and topical enough in the face of changing circumstances. In the case of Accolade, the answer is a resolute yes.
As displayed with the shady goings on at Rupert Murdoch’s (now thankfully defunct) News of the World, and consequently mirrored in Richard Bean’s astute Great Britain at the National, the police and the press can work hand-in-glove in acts of celebrity snoopery and reputation destruction. This makes Williams’s 64-year-old words all the more fascinating.
Indeed, the recent revelations around certain celebrities inject further relevance into Accolade. “Do they ever take titles back?” bemoans Sir William. “Once you’ve soiled something it’s not returnable” hisses his wife Rona.
Topical it may be, but the writing is by no means perfect. The working class Phyllis and Harold are painted with disparagingly large brush strokes. Do people like this really think that “books are all the same” and say “I seed” instead of ‘I saw?’ I’m not convinced. Cue chuckles of ‘aww they don’t know any better’ from the clearly comfortably off St James audience and this all left me feeling a little uncomfortable.
It’s probably the quality of Blanche McIntyre’s production that helps transform Accolade from a forgotten work into something a bit more punchy and classic. Alexander Hanson plays Will with a skilful ease; he is fascinating to watch, understandable, relatable, but not very likeable. The same is true of Abigail Cruttenden as Rona; staunchly sticking by her man, her clipped accent and cheery demeanour used to mask her own anguish at being thrown to the wolves by the newspapers. It is a strong company in fact, with Bruce Alexander as Mr Daker deserving mention also.
Accolade is sharp and smart. It might even make me research this Emlyn Williams fella.
Accolade is playing at the St James Theatre until 13 December. For tickets and more information, see the St James Theatre website. Photo by Mark Douet.