More than half a century after Graham Greene’s The Living Room began its two-year run on the West End, Primavera and the Jermyn Street Theatre have brought back this interesting and chilling piece for its first major UK revival. The Living Room remains compelling even after decades of social and cultural change, but struggles to pack the same scandalous punch for modern generations as it would’ve done when it premiered.
It’s easy to see how the play was daring in its original production, but that aspect of its attraction has faded somewhat. Tackling issues of sex, adultery, divorce, religion, and death, the play embraces scandal and delves into subjects that were once kept strictly behind closed doors. But few of these issues represent the same taboos they did in the 1950s – when we imagine scandal, a middle-aged man having an affair with a younger woman during a mid-life crisis isn’t exactly the titillating drama that first comes to mind. The play offers smart and sometimes humorous insights into the contradictions and complexities of everyday life, but tends to fall flat or become melodramatic when it may have once soared.
However, there’s enough depth to the characters and quirkiness in their fictional lives that The Living Room mostly manages to retain an appealing energy. The ensemble cast of seven actors delivers strong performances in complex roles, weaving together natural dialogue, light humour and heavy drama. Caroline Blakiston is especially memorable as the senile 78-year-old Teresa Browne; performing the role with impressive versatility, she provides both some of the most dramatic and some of the funniest moments in the play. The Jermyn Street Theatre’s odd dimensions are perfectly suited to the production, its small space perfectly transformed into a cluttered and creepy living room in Cherry Truluck’s design.
Tom Littler’s direction is mostly successful but is let down by his tendency to position actors facing upstage and away from the audience. Although this more natural-looking blocking could theoretically add to the piece’s realism, it proves distracting when important dialogue takes place and all that can be seen is the back of an actor’s head. This is a frequent issue in the production, ad prevents many of the scenes from reaching their full potential.
Overall, the uniquely chilling tone of the play provides The Living Room with a stamina that withstands the challenges of ageing material and sometimes frustrating direction. There’s an intriguingly uncomfortable mood in the Brownes’ living room, clearly felt by the characters and permeating the audience as well. Even if the play’s scandal no longer shocks as it used to, its eerie characters and events will give it life for a new generation of theatregoers.
The Living Room is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 30 March. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website.