THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Saturday 30th July, 2011
The New Vic’s triumphant Summer Rep season came to an end with the final performance of J M Barrie’s comedy of manners, a play that proves he could delight adults as effectively as he did children with Peter Pan (“did children” sounds wrong now that I look at it. Let me make it clear I’m not suggesting JM had any of MJ’s alleged tendencies – legal minefield this blogging lark, ain’t it?).
The play, first produced in 1901, is remarkably fresh and pertinent. Its politics make for a piquant satire of today, now our backward-thinking leaders wish to return us to nineteenth century “values”. Barrie “pooh-poohs” ( to use a phrase from the play) notions of Equality, an idea given lip-service by Lord Loam, and uses the device of stranding his characters on a desert island to demonstrate that a natural leader will inevitably emerge. Ability and character define the leader, not privilege, wealth or circumstance of birth. Crichton, a butler who could give Jeeves a run for his money, soon takes over. He becomes a benevolent despot and everyone is happy to serve him. The flighty young ladies become valued contributors. The men apply themselves to the common good. They all benefit from Crichton’s inventiveness – the island’s resources are put to clever and ecological use.
When, after two years, rescue comes, the old order is swiftly restored, and we feel the injustice of this more keenly than the characters. Back in England, a cover-up in the form of a published account of their ordeal, marginalises Crichton and glorifies through falsehood the heroics of the upper class. Perhaps most admirable about Crichton is his unwillingness to resume his former life. The true nature of his “betters” has been revealed. He hands in his notice and goes to run a pub on the Harrow Road, where he can again be master of all he surveys. This move from servant to small businessman is in direct opposition to Lord Loam’s avowal to shed his liberal outlook and join the Tories. Equality is off the agenda. Crichton will work hard for success and wealth. Loam, nothing more than an amusing buffoon, seeks to cling to his position by reinforcing the status quo.
Can’t help longing for a Crichton to come along and unseat the self-serving millionaires we are lumbered with…
The company is a tight ensemble, having bonded over the past few months in the staging of four very diverse plays, clearly enjoyed themselves. Director Theresa Heskins has gathered a fine bunch of character actors, among them the marvellous and indefatigable Michael Hugo and, blast from my TV viewing past, Paul “P C Penrose” Greenwood. Really the entire cast deserves praise and applause until one’s elbows bleed. So too does the design team, not least for the Act Three set: the communal hut on the desert island, and the octagonal table that transforms into a natural stone staircase. The New Vic always makes the most of its in-the-round structure and I look forward to the new season as an impatient child waits for Christmas (when Michael Hugo will return to play the Mad Hatter). Yippee!
P.S. Geek fact: The robot butler off of Red Dwarf was named Kryten because of this play.