Review: The Potting Shed, Finborough Theatre, Thursday 6 January 2011

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

Is it best to let sleeping dogs lie – or sleeping plays, for that matter? Family secrets, lost memories and a crisis of faith are the themes running through Graham Greene’s neglected play, now revived for a second time at the Finborough Theatre as part of their RediscoveriesUK season. The season aims to excavate forgotten plays by British writers, presenting the first London production of psychological drama The Potting Shed for 40 years.

In the intimate space of Finborough, the claustrophobia of a family suffocated with secrets is tangible. Paul Cawley is James Callifer, a man estranged from his family and with a disturbing lack of childhood memories, mysteriously haunted by the potting shed at the bottom of the garden. As he returns home on the eve of his father’s death in search of answers, the scene is set for bitter confrontation and shocking revelations. 

In James’s long and painful quest for the truth about his childhood, Cawley effortlessly weaves between agitated frustration and raw grief, his frenetic movements hinting at a man teetering on the brink of madness as he delves deeper into the repressed memories of his youth. It is a stretch of the imagination, however, that this is a man who initially feels, as he states in the first scene, nothing; Cawley’s performance is all too feeling.

Imagination is something that is required in quite a considerable dose to swallow all the improbabilities of Greene’s plot. Although the portrait of a family falling apart at the seams is carefully painted in subtle shades by this solid cast, the script leaves gaping holes that, at times, make the psychological motivations of the main players somewhat incomprehensible. As questions of faith take precedence in the latter stages of the play, there are elements of the past that are left oddly untouched, leaving the end impression of a jigsaw puzzle with a piece still missing.

Despite the downfalls of the plot, the production successfully evokes a taut atmosphere of 1950s reserve, with Eileen Battye standing out as the embodiment of the older generation’s carefully contained emotion in the role of James’s mother; it is very much stiff upper lip and sweeping anything unpleasant under the carpet. Meanwhile, James’s inquisitive niece Anne, played as a deliciously precocious child by the impressive Zoe Thorne, turns detective to unravel the mystery.

This is a mystery, however, that is a little too protracted. There could hardly be more cryptic dialogue skirting around the all-important potting shed, so that before long we too want to shout with James ‘what happened there?’. When the secret is unveiled, at the close of the second act, it is slightly underwhelming and is followed by a slow third act that never quite delivers. Those expecting a dazzling denouement will be disappointed.

Greene’s play begins promisingly, sketching out a mouth-watering mystery and slowly building anticipation, but his plot unfortunately fizzles out in the final third. An odd piece, The Potting Shed succeeds as an interesting exploration of the nature of faith and an effective portrait of the 1950s family, just not as a consistently engaging story. Although this is not perhaps a play that urgently needed to be unearthed, Svetlana Dimcovic’s direction and the excellent performances of the cast, including a notable turn by Martin Wimbush as a disillusioned priest, wring all that they can out of the slightly lacklustre script. One can begin to see why this play has not been performed in 40 years, but the team at the Finborough make an impressive effort to bring it back to life.


One Response to “Review: The Potting Shed, Finborough Theatre, Thursday 6 January 2011”
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  1. […] himself, religion is a recurring theme in his novels (and his plays, such as the long neglected Potting Shed, though perhaps someone should have told him to stick to the day job). In Brighton Rock, however, […]

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