Life-changing moments in The Potting Shed

10 Jan 2011

Evening Standard

by Henry Hitchings

This revival of an obscure 1958 play by Graham Greene is part of a season of rediscovered British works at the Finborough — which, incidentally, now boasts a new wine bar. The play has not been performed in London since 1971; improbably, that staging featured Cliff Richard in the lead.

It’s a psychological drama which explores ideas of doubt and moral certainty. James Callifer, a nerdy middle-aged journalist, is prompted by his father’s impending death to try to make sense of the past — plugging the gaps in his uneven memories of a troubled adolescence. Of particular concern to him is something that happened in
the family potting shed when he was 14.

The nature of this traumatic event is less gruesome than a modern audience might expect — and indeed hope. The crucial revelation sags. In any case, it’s too implausible to be shocking. Yet as James inches towards the truth, he becomes increasingly frantic. At the heart of the play is a conflict between faith and atheism, between conviction and hesitancy. Greene himself claimed that the key line was “When you are not sure, you are alive.”
The value of resurrecting this old-fashioned and formulaic play is questionable. It takes too long for the central subject matter to be introduced.
Some of Greene’s symbolism is heavy-handed (no prizes for guessing the significance of James having lost his dog), and the short final act feels limp.
Nevertheless, Svetlana Dimcovic’s production is both tactful and authentic. As James, Paul Cawley delivers a performance that blends feverish frustration and genuine agony. Martin Wimbush is excellent as his uncle, a priest with a drink problem, while Zoe Thorne conveys a nicely puckish scepticism as James’s teenage niece Anne.

Posted on January 10, 2011 in Press, theater

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