Theatre Review: Accolade

Theatre Royal Bath, until July 6
Words by Melissa Blease

In the years that have passed since Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams’ 1950 drama Accolade – described by director Sean Mathias in this production’s programme notes as “the study of a bohemian who becomes entrapped inside the establishment” – premiered, our attitudes to sexual abuse and exploitation of minors are rather more enlightened than were back then, and dramas questioning considerations around class structure and morality are commonplace.

But therein lies the power of a revival: done well, a new production of a once-controversial play can offer an opportunity to check in on who and where we – and theatre in general – are at, right here, right now. But does this revival of Accolade tick that box?

For a while (quite a long while, as it happens; this is most definitely not a fast-paced drama) this Bill Kenwright Ltd production holds promise. We’re fly-on-the-walling at the heart of the Trenting family’s upmarket Regent’s Park home (a gorgeously detailed set courtesy of Julie Godfrey) on the eve of writer Will Trenting‘s trip to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood.

At first, it’s all cheers, champagne and congratulations on Trenting’s forthcoming Sir-dom. But it eventually transpires that wandering Will has a penchant for attending (and indulging in) swinger parties in seedy Rotherhithe bars that he claims is all about research for authentic backstory inspiration for his novels – yeah, right. Will’s murky past (let alone his present predilection for pervy pastimes) is about to catch up with him courtesy of a blackmailer waiting in the wings, armed with photos of the accused caught in flagrante delicto at a party with the blackmailer’s 14-year-old daughter – yuk.

Cue a brave, bold analysis of see-sawing sexual politics, class imbalances and themes around what does or does not constitute brazen exploitation of a minor? Erm… no, no and no. Rather than taking the anticipated deep dive into Williams’ original motivations for writing Accolade, we seem to be asked to focus instead on how Sir Will will escape the slur on his family’s ‘good name’.

As Sir Will, Ayden Callaghan delivers a shadow-free portrayal of a man one would expect to be hugely conflicted – or at least riddled with guilt. While plenty of heavy-handed allusions to his Jekyll and Hyde nature are referenced, Callaghan’s Trenting is as one-dimensional as a sheet of blank paper. His upper-crust wife Rona (Honeysuckle Weeks), meanwhile, does little to make any kind of blot on that paper, the outing of her husband’s revolting misdemeanour with a minor apparently merely a boring interruption to their otherwise ‘nice’ life.

There’s a possibility of some kind of incendiary touch-paper being lit by the introduction of Sir Will’s slightly less sophisticated Rotherhithe friends Phyllis and Harold (Sarah Twomey and Gavin Fowler), but despite allusions made to how the couple cash in on arranging the all-night orgies that Sir Will is so fond of, the pair are portrayed as nothing more than a sub-plot left unexplored. As for Daker (Narinder Samra), the blackmailer and father of the 14-year-old girl that Will ‘partied’ with – he just kinda rolls around the stage swigging brandy, over-gesticulating for no apparent reason and offering no substantial motivation for flip-flopping from asking for Sir Will to employ him then almost settling for cash before eventually taking the legal route to outing Sir Will for the perv that he is.

Sarah Twomey as Phyllis and Louis Holland as Ian Trenting in Accolade

Elsewhere, Sir Will’s publisher Thane Lampeter (David Phelan) adds a much-needed spark of charisma to a collection of over-long, emotion-free scenes and butler Albert (Jamie Hogarth) brings brief pockets of interest to the non-starting party. The potential to develop the personalities or even the point of these potentially pivotal characters, however, is again oddly overlooked and under-developed in the direction. Meanwhile, casting Louis Holland – an actor clearly in his early 20s – as the Trenting’s 14-year-old son Ian only serves to add a clumsily comedic edge to proceedings.    

It could be said that, as a trip down memory lane to a time and a place we don’t need to revisit, Accolade perhaps serves a purpose. That purpose in this instance, however, is questionable.

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