On The Rocks

Posted on: 17 July 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

A comedy about D H Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and their experiment in living.


"A friendship is as binding and as solemn as a marriage. It’s a covenant for life."

This remark by writer D H Lawrence gets to the essence of Amy Rosenthal’s ambitious new play On the Rocks at the Hampstead Theatre.

It is the spring of 1916 and Lawrence and his German wife Frieda have found a new life for themselves in the remote Cornish village of Zennor.

Rejuvenated by the wild beauty around them, they persuade close friends, the New Zealand short story writer Katherine Mansfield and her partner, literary critic Middleton Murry to join them in their Cornish idyll. The project had been Lawrence’s idea: an isolated, creative utopia where good friends would live, eat and write.

Yet no sooner have Katherine and Jack arrived than long-simmering tensions bubble to the surface, leading to rivalries and betrayals, not to mention intellectual snobbery, and Lawrence’s dream of communal living starts unravelling before his eyes.

Based on true events, this dramatic comedy of four friends trying to live together, two marriages struggling for survival and a group of writers striving for creativity in the midst of war raises fascinating issues yet one wishes it had been better than it actually is.

The play does not tell us anything we didn’t know before about Lawrence and the rather slow first half mainly serves as character and scene setting - Rosenthal wants us to get to know these people - before the drama catches fire in the second half and becomes an absorbing study of how fidelity and friendship are pushed to the hilt.

Designer Paul Burgess has created an impressive, atmospheric set of two adjacent cottages with a view of the front room of one and the larger living/dining room of the other, with an open fireplace, above which is a small turret room, all on the one, wide stage.

Director Clare Lizzimore elicits fine performances from Ed Stoppard, who's best, as the bearded, passionate and impetuous Lawrence, a man who could be violent one minute and loving the next, Tracy-Ann Oberman as his vociferous wife, Frieda, Charlotte Emmerson as the frustrated Katherine, complaining of suffering from writer’s block - "I’m 29 and nothing is getting done" - and Nick Caldecott as the more restrained Jack. Certainly Stoppard and Emmerson bear strong physical resemblances to the characters they portray.

A flawed play, then, but one worth catching which proves that famous writers can be just as fallible as the rest of us.

Plays until 26th July 2008.

By Laurence Green

Booking Information

Box office: 020 7722 9301 or: www.hampsteadtheatre.com

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