Review: The Heiress at The George Hotel

This benchmark production by Elle Knight’s legendary Intimate Theatre is the most exactly judged I have seen this year, its deeply felt emotions flickering like summer lightning flashing just under the horizon via a hand-picked cast unveiling performances of seldom-seen perfection.

Here the veteran director has surpassed even her own unrivalled track record with this stage version by Ruth and Augustus Goetz of Henry James’ worldly novel Washington Square to create a gripping, edge-of-the-seat production of rare subtlety and deeply-felt humanity.

The Heiress

The Heiress

In this tale of the gently bred and painfully shy child of New York patricians the whole of real life with all its misconceptions and contradictions is exquisitely played out. Stephen Brunton as the worldly father Dr Austin Sloper is at the top of his game here, scrupulously weighing his actions when a potential suitor comes calling on his rich only child.

Adrienne Swallow has never been better as the delighted aunty Mrs Lavinia Pennyman who loves the idea of romance as she would a good book. I was delighted to see Pauline Fowler as Dr Sloper’s other sister Mrs Elizabeth Almond, struggling painfully with her unspoken concerns.

But the star is indubitably Rachel Duncan with a towering performance as Catherine the shy, awkward girl, obviously over-protected by her understandably nervous father who realises fortune hunters will pounce as soon as she makes her debut in the salons of New York. Here Henry James’ exquisite irony is at its full force, that very concern making her fair game for the first man whether honourable or fortune-hunter who pays her any attention at all. Ms Duncan is simply sublime giving us the opportunity to see into this young girl’s heart and mind, her every thought, however deeply hidden and hardly understood transparent in the troubled water of her clear face, her secret emotions flickering across her features as if spoken aloud. This is a performance of the very rarest kind of artistry.

A perfect foil for her is the young, over-assured bride Marian Almond played by the marvellous Annie Blackwell, who breezes through life as everything the central character is not.

And of course it is as her father fears, the perfect self-fulfilling prophecy as she falls for the fortune-hunter Morris Townsend, played with deceptively authoritative skill by Greg Spencer. I saw Mr Spencer’s first appearance on the local stage and marvelled then at the completely assured quality of his talent. Here it is on full display as the mountebank whose occasional clumsiness lets us look deep into his shallow plans.

Maureen George is just right as his sister Mrs Montgomery, her delicacy and good manners gently at war with her familial loyalty, and possibly with her own concerns for a defenceless girl – we guess she may have had conversations of this kind many times before.

I am delighted to see Nicola Peace as the maid Maria. Increasingly she fully inhabits any role she plays, and here she effortlessly radiates a touching geniality which gives a warm note to what is in effect a chilling tale.

A truly wonderful start to the Lichfield Festival.

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