A Victorian Eye at Jermyn Street Theatre
Were it the tiebreaker in a pub quiz, the question “Who created the mosaics in St Paul’s Cathedral?” would most likely leave all entrants stumped. Perhaps that’s why Rory Fellowes, brother of critically acclaimed Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, has penned a one-man play to celebrate the long forgotten painter, sculptor and mosaic artist, Sir William Blake Richmond.
Produced by Tim Hollier, A Victorian Eye is staged at the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre and risks a sense of being sat at the knee of a fading grandfather, recounting his life’s adventures. However, American director Maureen Payne-Hahner prevents the audience from feeling static with actor Nigel Dunbar’s carefully choreographed movement across the entire stage.
For the next 80 minutes, a detailed history lesson unfolds as the artist packs away his cluttered studio – a wonderfully intricate set from production designer, Tim Dann. The monologue is an elaborate lecture containing dates, names and facts, lightened occasionally with humour and anecdotal stories revealing the 19th century artist’s relationships with, not only his peers and mentors, but also his parents, assistant, wives and children.
He talks about his craft with an almost evangelical fervour and, indeed, religion lies at the heart of all Richmond’s work: art is more than an expression, it is divine. Lighting, music and sound are brilliantly interspersed to define each act and to illustrate the vivid sights witnessed by the artist during frequent trips to Italy and the East. However, Dunbar’s charming performance requires a more powerful script to generate the empathy deserved by such a talented and oft-derided artist.
Based upon art historian, Simon Reynolds’ book, William Blake Richmond – An Artist’s Life, the script includes the painter’s own words to portray a conservative character with an endearing mischievous streak. Yet, the insights that resonate are not the untimely deaths of two wives, nor even the scorn heaped upon the glorious mosaics within St. Paul’s (which took 13 years to complete) – they are the stories of childhood rebellion, encounters with politicians and royalty, and a brush with the supernatural that stir and fascinate.
The volume of data imparted is, at times, overwhelming, and the production feels like an extended scene from a mockumentary. Although it brings to life the subject matter and key character, it feels very much like a diluted reconstruction of what should be a more poignant tale of injustice and loss.
A Victorian Eye is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 17th August 2013. For further information or to book visit the show’s website here.