Embarrassment and anxiety shiver through The Slaves of Solitude, Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s 1947 novel. Don’t they shiver through most people’s lives? Hamilton is often called a “minor” writer, but I think there is some snobbery in that. True, he did not write Hamlet; nor did he write about men and women of action, but the outer world is mapped on to the inner lives of his characters with extraordinary intricacy. His writing, both novels and plays, is full of reverberations. It even has consequences. Not many playwrights have supplied the language with a new verb: but Hamilton gave us the increasingly useful “gaslighting”.
Set in a boarding house on the Thames, The Slaves of Solitude powerfully suggests how civilians in the second world war might suffer a blackout of the soul. Jonathan Kent’s production captures some sense of this some of the time. Tim Hatley’s design, with aptly dim lighting by Peter Mumford, slides translucent screens between scenes, as if to cut the characters off from themselves. Fenella Woolgar, an actress so fine that she makes her face look utterly in period, is both delicate and sharp as the central character, a woman wobbling on several brinks: of middle age, of love (for an American soldier), of despair, of violence. Clive Francis is unforgettable as the boarding house bully, spilling over with vicious joviality and florid circumlocutions: “did’st thou imbibe mighty potions to pursue the great god Bacchus in his unholy rites?” He is a ghastly reminder that not all abuse is overtly sexual.
Still, I think Wright is mistaken in thinking that the melodrama of Hamilton’s plays has a place in The Slaves of Solitude, in which the darkness is foggy, and the more sinister for being only half acknowledged. He has given the story a thriller-like opening, overemphasised the grotesqueness of the heroine’s brilliantly ambiguous female adversary, and made the last scene into a failed romantic encounter. That is to narrow the effect of a subtle work. It is good to see Hamilton staged, however partially, but this should not be the final version.