How do you justify your own life? Could you defend yourself if called to account? That tenet is at the heart of the Donmar Warehouse’s revival of John Osborne’s 1964 play Inadmissible Evidence.
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Bill Maitland is a divorce lawyer on the wrong side of 50 with a wife, mistress and drink problem, struggling to, as his secretary puts it, ‘just cope’. In his dusty and cluttered office in Fleet Chambers he pops pills, crashes and rages until every client looks the same and even his daughter refuses to speak to him. In the midst of this chaos, Bill seeks redemption. With the audience as jury and his peers in judgment he spills his heart – the women abused, the failures met and the time wasted.
You don’t need to delve into the biographical notes in the play’s programme to find John Osborne in Bill Maitland. This play, written only eight years after his breakthrough with Look Back in Anger, is the Angry Young Man grown up. The writer loads a scatter gun full of vitriol and fires at will – uncomfortable viewing, a salt-raw wound of a play which cannot ever heal.
Yet, in the midst of this, Douglas Hodge (fresh from a Tony-winning turn in La Cage Aux Folles) turns Maitland into something more akin to Archie Rice than Jimmy Porter – here is King Lear played by Tommy Cooper, a shuffling dry vaudevillian carousing with the audience whose final implosion coruscates around the intimate venue. Barely held together, his middle aged paunch jutting out, he winks and gurgles his way through a virtuoso turn, confirming his place as one of our finest leading men.
Jamie Lloyd marshals his whole company into a humdrum cacophony of office life – as Maitland despairs the typists still type, the filing cabinets creak and office doors slam, all caught beautifully in Soutra Gilmour’s musty brown set. Al Weaver as a junior clerk who morphs into a young man caught importuning (the play’s master stroke is to have a succession of clients played by the same actors) is the perfect counterpoint to Hodge’s kinetic energy. In a tragically precise monologue Weaver expresses an achingly forbidden love, a reminder of the illicitness of Sixties’ gay life. Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan who makes the best of flatly written secretary Shirley while Amy Morgan invests rival secretary Joy with an honest sexual vigour at odds with Maitland’s decrepitude.
This is a cannonball of a play and Douglas Hodge clings on for dear life. It’s one of the finest lead performances since Mark Rylance in Jerusalem and should be worthy of recognition when awards season comes. Even if the momentum drops in places Inadmissible Evidence is still a burning, furious scorcher of an evening – but don’t get too close.
Words: Daniel James
Photo: Johan Persson
Inadmissible Evidence is at the Donmar Warehouse, London until 26th November.
The Donmar Warehouse is supported by their Principal Sponsor Barclays Capital and Associate Sponsor Simmons & Simmons as well as The Sherling Charitable Trust.