Writer: Robert Graves
Director: Fidelis Morgan
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
This is an odd one: a ‘lost’ Robert Graves play which documents the aftershocks of war and, surprisingly, has two characters, one male and one female, struggling to come to terms with their homosexuality. Very funny and almost embarrassingly melodramatic, it’s difficult to label this play with a genre. Perhaps, as one of the characters suggests, we should call this play a ‘post-catastrophic comedy’.
The catastrophe, of course, is World War One, and even though the play was written in 1929, its legacy is clearly apparent. Repressed homosexual David is still suffering from shellshock, reliving the trenches when a Chekhovian gun is fired early in the first half. His best friend and unrequited love is Dick, who the war has made cynical and nihilistic. Saying that society has ‘crashed’, the only things he believes in are his slim volumes of Modernist prose, which nobody reads.
His father, Cecil, however, writes books that everyone reads. Cecil, played wonderfully by Jack Klaff, all bluster with a mouth full of marbles, provides most of the humour of the first half. He is scatty and philandering, rebuking his son’s generation for being feeble and languid. Cecil has no problems with sex. For him, it’s a relatively simple procedure.
For the other characters, sex is more problematic. Take Cecil’s daughter, for example; Refreshingly for the play’s time, Dorothy is a doctor, but any feminism on Graves’ part quickly crumbles when we realise that she knows nothing of sex, or, indeed, of homosexuality as she plans to marry David, even though she’s been warned by her best friend, Charlotte, that David is not the marrying kind. And Charlotte should know because she is of a ‘complementary persuasion.’ And like the title of the play, so it goes on.
And for the first half, it goes well. The acting is all first-rate, especially from Alan Cox as world-weary Dick. The women’s roles are fuller than one might expect and we can hear the conflict underneath the cut-glass accents of Rachel Pickup as Dorothy and Sophie Ward as Charlotte as they attempt to make their way in a man’s world, and, importantly, take their revenge upon it. Charlotte Weston is hilarious as Cecil’s flirty mistress, and it’s a shame that we see so little of her.
The characters have post-theatre dinners, and lawn tennis matches, and these all take place under the canvas of an officer’s tent designed by Doug Mackie, a persistent reminder of how the War casts shadows on everyone’s lives. To hammer home this point, a young soldier haunts the stage, sometimes dancing the Charleston, or, more ominously, he silently watches as events spiral out of control.
Unfortunately, they also spiral into high melodrama and after the interval, it’s hard to keep up with all the action happening offstage, and suddenly this rediscovered play doesn’t seem such a find after all. Director Fidelis Morgan puts the break on a little to slow down the chaos, and she also provides some additional dialogue and a slightly different ending than Graves wanted. But the messy second half rather undoes the fine work that happens in the first. The melodrama comes like a grenade, and the frank examination of the effects of war, and the promisingly sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality, are lost.
But It Still Goes On may be receiving its world premiere some 90 years since it was written, but despite its faults, it’s still a worthy addition to plays about war, and, importantly, about interwar homosexuality.
Runs until 4 August 2018 | Image: Scott Rylander