Distinguished Villa first opened in the West End in 1926. It was writer Kate O’Brien’s first play and the programme for this revival tells us the reviews ranged from ‘masterpiece’ to ‘horrid’. Coming up on 100 years later, Finborough Theatre brings all its talents to this excellent revival.
Mabel Hemworth (Mia Austen) runs a lodging house and takes pride – so much pride – in keeping it what she considers prim and proper. She never removes her apron and proudly retorts as much to her husband Natty (Matthew Ashforde) when he seeks a bit of attention. Her neighbours have suggested she should rename her home ‘Distinguished Villa’ and this compliment makes her so happy. I would say there are echoes of Hyacinth Bucket, but of course Distinguished Villa predates her by well over half a century. Mim Houghton’s set is perfect; a sterile front room, with plenty for Mabel to dust and fret over, but the gramophone in the corner offering just a hint that Natty has a slight escape.
Frances/ Ethel-Bertha (Holly Sumpton) is their new lodger. She has the refinement, the class that Mabel so desperately aspires to. She has modern, progressive ideas (for 1926) and shocks Mabel more than once. Frances is out of place, with her friend and want-to-be beau smarmy Alec (Simon Haines) questioning what she is doing there. As she spends time in the home, she develops a clear fondness for the family and in particular for Natty.
Carla Evans’s wardrobe design complements the performances; each costume fits the character. We watch as the subtle initial connection between Mabel’s sister Gwen (Tessa Bonham Jones) in her nightdress and besuited Alec becomes obvious. Natty’s unwinding is echoed by his deteriorating clothing; a man whose sole point of pride was his appearance becomes more and more dishevelled.
Distinguished Villa paces itself: there is a slow confidence in Hugh Fraser’s direction. We spend enough time with each character to gain an understanding of them and of their relationship with the others. There are no surprises in this play; from the very start we see the building blocks going into place and the story follows naturally – much as we might wish for a different ending.
There are some slight issues. Alec and John (Brian Martin) have less to do as love interests; their characters are paper thin, but both actors do a good job and both get small moments to shine. It’s never quite clear why Frances has taken lodging there. It’s implied – well more than implied by Alec – that it is below her and she likely stays out of fondness for the family. But what brought her to them in the first place?
A lot might have changed since O’Brien set pen to paper in 1926, but the themes of Distinguished Villa are timeless and remain relevant to audiences here in 2022.
Written by Kate O’Brien
Directed by Hugh Fraser
Distinguished Villa plays at Finborough Theatre until 1 October 2022. Further information and bookings can be found here.