First published in The Times, Tuesday August 9 2016
The English pastoral writer Denton Welch was only 33 years old at the time of his death in 1948, and while his work is not as well known as some of his contemporaries (he counted Edith Sitwell and EM Forster among his friends) his influence continues to be felt. Alan Bennett is a fan. The playwright Robert Holman’s drama Making Noise Quietly includes a character based on Welch.
The latest contemporary artist to fall under the spell of Welch’s exacting prose is Sam Rowe, a writer and performer based in Glasgow. As he outlines in the opening scene of his one-man show, Rowe was given a copy of Welch’s diaries by a family friend in 2011, and gradually became enraptured by Denton’s lush descriptions of the Kent countryside and his frank, intense portrayal of his relationship with his “perfect, imperfect friend”, Eric Oliver.
Denton and Me laces together elements from Rowe’s autobiography with episodes from Welch’s journals. The production, directed by Nicholas Bone, is a slow burn, but Rowe is a likeable performer and his passion for his subject proves infectious. This is no mere fan letter, however. Presenting the two strands side-by-side, Rowe shows how the need to romanticise one’s own life, the loneliness of courtship and the pain of rejection are timeless features, whether of an era of sexual openness or a more closeted age.
Pic: Niall Walker
He also has fun contrasting Welch’s vivid descriptions with the dulling nature of modern communication. At one point, Denton describes his feeling at parting with his lover as being filled with all the “accidents and hate” of the world. Rowe, meanwhile, receives a one-line message signalling the end of a relationship with a boyfriend: “Working all weekend. Sorry.”
The production, developed in association with the Macrobert Arts Centre and Showroom, is not quite perfect. Some of the switches in voice and time frame are not clearly enough delineated and the backdrop of Summerhall’s Anatomy Theatre is a little chilly for the show’s milieu. Assurance of execution will likely build during this run, however, and Rowe is to be commended for fashioning something compelling and new out of an invaluable historical text.