The on-stage character of Sir Johnstone Kentley has been swapped for his wife, Lady Kentley (Cara Chase), for this production of Rope. It’s become a period play, though set in the ‘present day’ – meaning it was first published and produced in 1929, and so would have been contemporary in its first incarnation. No attempt has been made to modify what Lady Kentley does or says in the script, as opposed to what her husband would do, so despite there being three fully mobile young men in the room, Wyndham Brandon (George Kemp), Kenneth Raglan (Fred Lancaster) and Charles Granillo (James Sutton), she is left to carry a collection of books unassisted on departure from the private residence in which the entire play is set. Given that her parting line is, “I’m getting on, you know. I’m getting old, that’s my trouble”, it struck me as rather odd that nobody at least offered to help.
Much has been made of the casting of James Sutton in a featured role. Here, he takes on a character who is one of the perpetrators of a crime, and holds his own, despite his Granillo not entirely on board with Brandon’s idea of having a party just hours after committing a criminal offence, conversing in the very clear and distinct theatrical dulcet tones that this well-to-do group of friends all speak in. This is, after all, a show set in Mayfair, and the only two that admit to not being local are Leila Arden (Phoebe Sparrow) and Kenneth Raglan, based in “South Kensington-ish” and Hampstead respectively. The dulcet tones momentarily brought to mind Noel Coward’s plays, but then the dulcet tones could just as easily bring to mind Terence Rattigan, or even Patrick Barlow’s comedy stage adaptation of The 39 Steps.
There is, despite the said crime having been committed, a most British sense of humour that permeates the evening’s proceedings, which resulted largely in light chuckles rather than side-splitting laughter, with one notable set of exceptions. There are contemporary examples of the likes of Leila Arden, who appear to have some sophistication about them but whose thoughts and opinions when expressed, are – and this is putting it lightly – vacuous. Rupert Cadell (Sam Jenkins-Shaw) has a field day with both her and Raglan, sardonically commenting on and even mimicking their style of conversation, and in doing so, steals the show.
This really was a different era – even those characters who consider themselves ‘undressed’ (as in, not especially dressed in formal eveningwear) are, by contemporary standards, very smart. And this revival is a hark back to the days before what I call ‘eff, cee and effing cee’ was the almost ubiquitous response to the slightest bit of trouble. The vocabulary deployed in this play is a pleasure to listen to. The first half is a little too slow, and the second half a little too preachy, as Rupert waxes lyrical about war and the sanctity of life. That said, some of what is said still has some relevance in today’s world: why indeed is killing someone as a soldier considered ‘war’ but killing someone as a civilian ‘murder’?
Plot takes precedence over character development, so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – or rather, cocktail. But when one considers that this isn’t a ‘whodunnit’ but a ‘we-know-whodunnit-but-can-they-get-away-with-it’, this is a compelling and surprisingly thought-provoking and absorbing production.