REVIEW: Mrs Dalloway (Arcola Theatre) ★★★★

Virgina Woolf was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. Best known for Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Lighthouse (1927), her diary entries, essays, letters, biographies and novels are canonised for reflecting the rapidly changing world she lived in. Documenting transformations in technology, sexuality, class and gender roles, Woolf’s style of modernist literature, focusing on her rumination of the ‘overlooked’, is timeless reading for feminists everywhere.

Timeless, yes. But nonetheless complicated. Hal Coase took on the gargantuan task of adapting Mrs Dalloway with a cast of just five in the petite downstairs studio at the Arcola.

It’s clear the style of the play greatly reflects the modernist quirks our beloved author dictates on the page. The piece opens with Emma D’Arcy (Rezia) and Clare Lawrence Moody (Sally) entering as themselves, telling us where they are from and when they first read the novel. The intimacy of the space suits this casual opening, however the language quickly becomes complex and cerebral. The cast question what elements scaffold a character from their experience of the everyday to the way they dress, act and walk. The content is heavy from the metaphorical curtain rise and there is an air of ‘is this going to get old?’ as the interval-less 1 hour 40 minutes looms stuffily in this underground space.

Much to my surprise and delight, the cast defy any earlier misconceptions of boredom by working together so seamlessly, there is no time to be inattentive. Each actor manoeuvres through multiple characters, accents, mannerisms and costumes to build a consistently energetic world. D’arcy as Rezia does a remarkable job of not only upholding a flawless Italian accent but playing every role with calculated singularity, even if on stage only for a few moments.

The set is simple, a wooden frame with a blue canvas hung as a window in the centre and a microphone stand which is rolled back and forth. The lighting, by Joe Price, works well to illustrate the warm ambience of that summer London day Mrs Dalloway so appreciates.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened in the story without reading the novel – something which I’m sure would have enhanced the experience insurmountably. The plot moves quickly and in large disconnected sections. Having said this, there was something which kept me hooked the whole length. The direction was not wholly inventive but a beat was never dropped, a line was never fluffed and the energy certainly never wained. Everything was slick, polished and most importantly, thoroughly rehearsed. Although this should be a given, it is astounding the amount of shows I see where a lot feels left to chance.

The piece comes to an end abruptly and undramatically. I am not left with a flame-licking desire to read the novel Mrs Dalloway nor am I apposed to seeing what other work of Woolf’s could be adapted for the stage. This is a charming play should you be fond of the fiery writer, as long as you don’t expect it to change your life.

Reviewed by Nicole Darvill-Batten
Photo: Ollie Grove


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