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Agnes Colander review at Ustinov Studio, Bath – ‘a long-lost Harley Granville Barker play’

Matthew Flynn and Naomi Frederick in Agnes Colander at Ustinov Studio, Bath. Photo: Simon Annand Matthew Flynn and Naomi Frederick in Agnes Colander at Ustinov Studio, Bath. Photo: Simon Annand
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This long-lost play by eminent Edwardian playwright Harley Granville Barker did not win any favours from its author.

Agnes Colander, an early treatise on feminism and sexual morality, was written when Barker was 23, only for him to scribble across the manuscript some 30 years later: “I suspect this play to be very poor”. Was he right?

Reworked by American playwright Richard Nelson (The Apple Family Plays, The Gabriels) and directed with commendable clarity by Trevor Nunn, the answer lies somewhere betwixt and between.

The work is certainly ungainly structured through a series of one-to-one conversations, with only a modicum of action right at the end. Its tale of the eponymous artist, who is separated from her adulterous husband and moves to France in search of freedom and romantic solace, may well also have been viewed as too racy for the straight-laced times, rather in the fashion of George Bernard Shaw`s Mrs Warren`s Profession.

However, these caveats are counter-balanced by Nunn`s emphasis on the relevance to today`s continuing struggle for female independence, and Ustinov Studio favourite Naomi Frederick`s engrossing portrayal of the link between Agnes`s ambition and her sexual identity.

Barker has sketched her two potential lovers as very much mirrors for her changing needs, with Matthew Flynn`s Bohemian fellow artist Otho battling against Freddy Carter`s smitten young admirer Alex.

Similarly, designer Rob Jones` contrasting sets – a London artist`s attic and a sun-kissed Normandy beach house – frame Agnes`s journey towards emancipation.

Harley Granville Barker: Lost Edwardian play sheds light on a forward-thinking writer

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Enterprising if rather wordy staging of a long-lost play by Harley Granville Barker