Last month, Radio 3 produced John Osborne’s A Patriot For Me, the banned play which helped to repeal stage censorship in 1968. Now Steve Waters – whose austerity protests drama, Temple, is currently at the Donmar – traces the origins of this suppression to 1737’s Licensing Act, in a drama which begins in rumbustious mood and ends as a lament for the stifled voices of mid-18th century theatre.
Jeremy Mortimer’s lively production gives us the roar of parliamentarians at work, the chatter of the coffee houses and the panting labour of Whig premier Robert Walpole pleasuring his mistress in an interlude he describes as “country matters”.
The play’s steely thread is the dissonance between Walpole and upcoming writer Henry Fielding. Waters imagines a series of encounters in which the writer is initially callow and malleable and later a champion of the public’s right to mocking and transformative laughter in the vigorous theatre of dissent and satire which flowered for around a decade after the death of George I.
Walpole is portrayed by David Troughton as a figure of hearty appetites, a provincial lacking elegance in manners and intellect, while Fielding is so less defined a character that his cousin Lady Mary (Niamh Cusack) is drafted in to give an overview. Although Carl Prekopp gives Fielding fire, there is a sense that Waters is equivocal about the author who makes ‘not a squeak of protest’ about the stage clampdown and becomes a novelist. The play ends with an elegiac tribute to the unwritten, unseen plays during theatre’s ensuing “great pause”.