“Refined” is the word around which Kate O’Brien’s 1926 play hinges. Mabel Hemworth is unrelenting in her control of her immaculately cleaned suburban home and her downtrodden husband, Natty. A woman claiming permanent illness and anxiety, frigid and childless, she is constantly on edge and desperate not to attract the negative judgement of the neighbours on their quiet avenue in Brixton. Even her husband’s singing along to a record she regards as outrageous due to what she considers to be racy lyrics. She has also ruled over the life of her sister, Gwen, a young woman seeking escape from this situation through marriage to the unremarkable John. Mabel represents the tied-down morals of the Victorian era, with even vague references to “issues of the night” causing her to have a fit of the vapours. Gwen meanwhile is a child of the “Roaring 20s”, demonstrating a more relaxed moral attitude which inevitably results in life-changing consequences.
Into the buttoned-up world of the Hemsworth’s comes lodger Frances, a modern young woman, willing to talk about emotions and morality. She demonstrates an empathy with Natty who enjoys bantering with her, while underneath he is descending into depression at his loveless marriage.
Distinguished Villa is very much a play of its time, apparently censored on its release for its promotion of outspoken views but which now don’t raise even half an eyebrow. As such, it’s an interesting insight into the lives of the suburbanites of that era, but with little relevance to contemporary society. Mia Austen’s Mabel is all rigid indignation and horror at anything other than refinement but there’s little exploration of what caused her to become this harridan of a woman. The other characters feel similarly lacking in description and back-story. Natty, played with henpecked restraint by Matthew Ashforde, seems to love Mabel but there’s no warmth in their relationship and the audience is left to wonder whether there ever was. Tessa Bonham Jones’s Gwendolyn is flighty and pretty and pouty. John Morris (Brian Martin) is her suitor, though there’s little chemistry between them. Simon Haines’s Alec Webberley is a well-off cad with loose morals who chases after Frances and who Mabel sees as a “catch” for Frances. Other than that though, who is he? Frances (Holly Sumpton) is a graceful and well-turned-out young woman, a writer, but the audience is told nothing else about her or how she came to be lodging with the Hemworths. She is the human catalyst in the unfolding drama but little else.
Hugh Fraser’s direction is at times ponderous, the pace too often dragging. There are passages that could definitely have been scored out with a ruthless red pen. The set by Mim Houghton is a suitably drab suburban living room, with green-painted walls, a colour that many will recognise from the homes of elderly relatives.
Distinguished Villa is a reminder of how far society has progressed in the last hundred years and in that, this is an interesting, if outdated, drama.
Distinguished Villa plays at the Finborough Theatre until Saturday, 1st October. Tickets are available from https://finboroughtheatre.co.uk/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 8th September 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★