The Living Room

Tom Littler's fine revival of Graham Greene's The Living Room, the first major production for over 60 years, is a gripping and absorbing interrogation of 1950s Catholic religious belief as embodied and skewed by a well-meaning but ultimately destructive family. It has two brilliant and moving character performances from Diane Fletcher and Caroline Blakiston.

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Twenty-year old Rose Pemberton (Tuppence Middleton) returns to the home of her aunts the day after the funeral of her mother, having stayed overnight in the Regal Court hotel with her married lover, the psychologist Michael Dennis (Christopher Villiers) – who is also the executor of the will. This is Holland Park in the 1950s; Rose is a lapsed Catholic and the home she is returning to is a profoundly devout Catholic enclave ruled over by her two maiden Aunts, Teresa (Caroline Blakiston) and Helen (Diane Fletcher) and their brother James (Christopher Timothy), a wheelchair-bound priest. There is something odd about the house: many of the rooms are closed and boarded up. The place is clearly haunted – not by ghosts but by a superstitious fear of death. This is nicely suggested in Cherry Truluck's economical stage design: a miracle of post-war clutter, winding staircase, entry door and a back wall containing frames with no pictures and a glimpse of the abyss. 

Greene uses this set-up to explore the notion of sin and expiation, Catholic guilt and fear of God, the relative merits of psychological therapy and sacramental confession. The dialogue is continually gripping, witty and rooted in character rather than debate; for example, Rose makes early word play on "executor" and "executer". It is Pinteresque before there was Pinter, with incoherent silences, trailing sentences and bizarre unexplained behaviour. From time to time Aunt Teresa walks across the stage ignoring everyone, exits then returns to talk to them as if nothing had happened. The Aunts take their time to work out why Rose is in the company of Michael, and their gradual discovery of the truth is amusingly dramatised, with much wry humour. In the process we hear about customary Catholic religious practices such as attending daily (Latin) Mass, saying novenas, buying holy pictures, lighting candles and praying the rosary: all of the essential trappings of a pre-Second Vatican Council Catholicism.

Greene captures superbly the ethos of a certain kind of well-off middle-class family fixated on faith practice but underpinned by something considerably more primitive – superstition. Only Father James is the voice of reason – a typical Greene touch – against his two unreasonable sisters. Every now and then he is wheeled on to dispense home-spun wisdom rather than articulate the un-negotiable teachings of the Church, yet this is no hatchet job on Catholicism: it is a finely attentuated portrayal of misinterpreted and skewed belief, written from an obvious deep love and concern: a love-letter to the church of the fifties, possibly. Tom Littler directs with real understanding of the issues involved, and the play is often unbearably poignant and moving. It is a long time since I witnessed a packed audience so rapt and engaged from beginning to end.

As Rose, Tuppence Middleton seems like a 21st century girl entering a 1950s scenario. She is, at first, a shade too cool, too emotionally-indifferent, but this reading lifts the play into an intriguing contemporary register, allowing us to look at the stifling effect of 1950s mores on a young free and unsuspecting spirit. During the play, I was reminded of Pope John XXIII's declaration in the early sixties to "open a window in the Church", to allow the forces of change and renewal to blow through.

There are superb performances from Diane Fletcher as the well meaning but chronically superstitious aunt – too controlled by the mechanical practices of her faith to be able to embrace the love which is at the heart of it – and by Caroline Blakiston as the older sister who is much wiser and perceptive than her dementia-prone mind permits her to be. Christopher Timothy remains the voice of calm and caution in the midst of the gathering hysteria. Christopher Villiers carefully suggests a man out of his depth emotionally and spiritually. Emma Davies, as the spurned wife, has a powerfully-distraught moment of confrontation with Rose which leads finally to tragedy.

The Living Room is that rarity: a play of entertaining and thought-provoking seriousness played to perfection by all concerned. It has a startling resonance today with its portrayal of the destructive underside of faith and deserves a West End transfer.

Primavera in association with Jermyn Street Theatre presents:

by Graham Greene

Directed by Tom Littler
Set Design by Cherry Truluck
Lighting Design by Tim Bray
Sound Design by George Dennis
Costume Design by Emily Stuart

'Since my last confession three weeks ago I have committed adultery twenty-seven times.'

On the night of her mother's funeral, Rose Pemberton does not join her Catholic family to say mass. She is in a hotel with Michael, a married psychology lecturer.

Graham Greene's powerful and shocking play is a story of sex, sin, and guilt. It unfolds in the mysterious 'living room' of Rose's elderly Catholic uncle and aunts, as a net begins to close around the adulterous couple. With echoes of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, Greene captures a dying but irresistibly powerful world.

The Living Room ran in the West End and on Broadway to great acclaim after its 1953 premiere. This is its first major revival after sixty years. Graham Greene is regarded as one of the finest novelists of the 20th century. His novels include Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana. He also wrote the screenplay for The Third Man.

Primavera and director Tom Littler return to Jermyn Street Theatre after acclaimed sell-out revivals of Bloody Poetry, Anyone Can Whistle and Saturday Night.

'The best first play of its generation.' Kenneth Tynan on The Living Room

Caroline Blakiston, Emma Davies, Diane Fletcher, Tuppence Middleton, Christopher Timothy and Christopher Villiers.

Primavera has assembled an outstanding all-star cast for this revival. 

Christopher Timothy, well known for his roles as James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small and Mac McGuire in Doctors, plays Father James Browne, Rose's uncle. Her aunts Teresa and Helen are played by distinguished actors Caroline Blakiston (Brass and, previously at Jermyn Street Theatre, Black Bread and Cucumber) and Diane Fletcher (House of Cards). Rising star Tuppence Middleton (Tormented, Cleanskin, and the BB's forthcoming The Lady Vanishes) makes her theatre debut as Rose. "Mr and Mrs Dennis are played by Christopher Villiers and Emma Davies, both widely known from their extensive television and stage work."

Jermyn Street Theatre

16b Jermyn Street
London Greater London United Kingdom SW1Y 6LT

Performances at the following times:

Monday to Saturday 7.30pm Saturday matinees 3.30pm

2 Hours 20 Minutes