Tag Archives: Finborough Theatre

“The Flouers o’ Edinburgh” at the Finborough Theatre

This is my kind of way to join the debate about Scottish independence. As those north of the border go to the ballot box, Londoners should vote with their feet and visit the Finborough Theatre’s new production of The Flouers o’ Edinburgh. Set not long after the Acts of Union in 1707, it raises pointed issues of identity and politics, but in such an endearingly comedic fashion that the topics feel light and fresh.

Jennifer Bakst’s direction makes the play easy entertainment, controlling potential touches of farce and opting for a gentle comedy that is close to frothy. There’s plenty of satire but nothing mean spirited and, since politics is one of the topics, it ticks the ‘timeless’ box. Philip Lindley’s set and Rose Adolph’s costumes are impressive. The cast is huge for such a small venue and the standard of acting high. It all bounces along very merrily indeed.

Maybe the play feels so sprightly because of the romance at its heart. It’s Sir Charles and Aunt Girzie’s intention that his son and her niece should marry, but should the elder couple get together as well? Kevin McMonagle and Jenny Lee perform with such twinkles in their eyes, we yearn for their union. The younger Charles and his intended Kate have obstacles to overcome, namely his snobbery and ambition, all ripe for mockery. Finlay Bain plays Charles Jnr with great stage presence but a touch too much restraint. Leigh Lothian’s Kate is feisty and much more fun.

The hot topic is whether or not to abandon the Scottish language for English. Young Charles is an early adopter, to the disgust of all, especially Kate, who continues to speak in Scots. But rejecting the mother tongue is the only way to get ahead in public life. The playwright Robert McLellan makes his political point well, but what’s remarkable here is that, despite the language used, comprehension is easy. There’s a lot a Sassenach might not know but Lee, in particular, still manages to make you laugh. McLellan was committed to writing in Scots. It’s telling that this 1948 play is only now receiving its English premiere. This fine play is a very welcome import.

Until 27 September 2014


Photo by Ciaran Cunningham

Written 3 September 2014 for The London Magazine

“Thérèse Raquin” at the Finborough Theatre

Thérèse Raquin, a new musical with book, lyrics and direction from Nona Shepphard and music by Craig Adams, has just opened at the Finborough Theatre. It’s bold, courageous even, with feet firmly planted on adventurous ground: an exciting evening of musical theatre with operatic ambitions.

Billed as a radical adaptation (you have been warned) by Shepphard it takes inspiration from Émile Zola’s tale of adultery and murder. The characters have a flatness that calls to mind myths or fairy tales – the conviction of Shepphard’s text makes them captivating. And Adams’ piano score is not easy listening, reminiscent of Philip Glass with its choral emphasis, rounds and repetition.

None of this makes it easy for the cast. But even performances that could be finessed win admiration for their bravura – and many of them are fantastic. The excellent Julie Atherton takes the title role, notable for her weighted silence long into the first act. Jeremy Legat has a trickier job as her sickly husband Camille. Legat sounds great but I am not sure about trying to inject some humour into the part. Ben Lewis plays the lover Laurent, complementing his tall, dark and handsome qualifications with a voice that’ll knock your socks off. Thérèse is accompanied by a chorus, with Matt Wilman, who also doubles as an oarsman, standing out. Shepphard puts Madame Raquin at the centre of the show and Tara Hugo gives a startling performance in the role, especially as the elderly lady succumbs to illness.

Shepphard also deserves credit for her directing skills, creating some great theatrical moments that enforce the imagery in her text. The recurring domino evenings, part of why Thérèse feels she is “buried alive” with her mother-in-law and feeble husband, are full of detail. The scene in a morgue, where Laurent tries to face his murderous actions, and a wedding night, with a ghostly reappearance from Camille, are superb.

Ultimately, to its credit, Thérèse Raquin is too big for the Finborough. This tiny venue is often top of my list for a visit, and what it achieves is remarkable, but the potential of this show seems too much. Despite the skillful set design from Laura Cordery, the production, especially the music, deserves a bigger stage. Naïve, perhaps, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if some far-sighted producer took a risk on something as different as this? Here’s hoping.

Until 19 April 2014


Photo by Darren Bell

Written 2 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“The White Carnation” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

After a sell out run at the Finborough Theatre, The White Carnation finds a new home at the Jermyn Street Theatre and started a short run last night. R.C. Sherriff’s story of a successful stockbroker’s life, which takes a supernatural twist when he returns as a ghost seven years after the war, has waited sixty years for its first revival and this skilled production serves it well.

In the lead role of self-made man John Greenwood, Michael Praed is a touch too urbane, but he deals with the incredible situation stylishly and is full of charisma. Praed delivers the play’s thoughtful moments well, including a burgeoning romance with a librarian; it’s not his fault this aspect of the writing feels like an underdeveloped J.B. Priestly play. Greenwood seems oddly tranquil with his predicament. The reckoning this ghost needs to settle is with his wife, but Sherriff adds atonement – as a kind of fable – too late.

The majority of the play deals humorously with the implications of Greenwood’s spectral status. Firstly, with the town councillor, played by a delightfully outraged Robert Benfield, who hopes to solve housing problems by tearing down the property he now finds haunted (he deals with matters in a far more civilised fashion than I imagine Eric Pickles would). Then with a nice gentleman from the Home Office, managed in appropriate style by Philip York, hoping this inconvenient ectoplasm will emigrate. The local vicar, Benjamin Whitrow, truly stealing his scene, trumps both.

Ridicule of the establishment in The White Carnation is effective, but gentle. Surely it all seemed a touch tame back in 1953 as well? Even Blythe Spirit has more bite. Now the whole affair is gloriously steeped in nostalgia, a fact that director Knight Mantell and his cast seem cleverly aware of. This quality affair is too sweet for sure, but it’s also a treat.

Until 22 February 2014


Photo by Mitzi De Margary

Written 7 February 2014 for The London Magazine

“Unscorched” at the Finborough Theatre

As the winner of the prestigious Papatango New Writing Prize, Luke Owen gets his first play, Unscorched, staged at the Finborough Theatre. Packing in the critics last night, the scene is set to judge the script, and it’s easy to see why it won as it’s a strong piece. But just as impressive are the performances from two players: Ronan Raftery, who takes the lead role, and his love interest, played by Eleanor Wyld.

Back to the playwright. Owen’s unsavoury subject is child abuse, with the action based around an office where pornography is analysed in order to assist the police. We know it’s an unpalatable job; the first scene, with a brief but emotive performance from Richard Atwill, brilliantly shows a worker having a breakdown because of the traumatic material he is exposed to.

Enter our new recruit Tom (Raftery). With the bravest of intentions, the long-serving Nidge, performed capably by John Hodgkinson, mentors him. Seemingly immune to the horrors he watches, Nidge makes us aware of the toll this necessary work takes. And Tom is carefully watched by his boss, who has a “buddy” approach to management that strikes a jarringly comic tone. George Turvey convinces in this role, pointing out the therapeutic potential of an Xbox and promoting paintballing – as if these really could be solutions.

It is the romantic writing, about Tom and his new love affair, which is best and highlights Owen’s intelligent voice. As with the main subject matter, the relationship is written in an admirably understated fashion. Careful to avoid prurient touches, it feels authentic and shows the effects that working in such a horrible field have on ordinary people and this likeable couple in particular.

Satisfying as it is, the relationship Tom starts out on could have been even more of a focus to the play. A series of (too) brief scenes start to become a touch frustrating. Perhaps the direction from Justin Audibert could have been slightly tighter. The astoundingly efficient set from Georgia Lowe works hard but time is taken up preparing for very short scenarios so it feels as if the play needs a bigger stage. Although given the quality of the writing and performances, it surely deserves one.

Until 23 November 2013


Written 1 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“As Is” at the Finborough Theatre

Reportedly the first theatrical response to the AIDS crisis, William H Hoffman’s 1985 play, As Is, receives its first revival in London for over a quarter of a century. The play takes us back to a dark age of paranoia and persecution. Estranged lovers Rich and Saul become reunited in the face of tragedy through their fear and resilience as they feel the epidemic “closing in” on their community. Set in the intimacy of the Finborough Theatre, the play has a rawness, anger and honesty that grab you and hold you.

As Is isn’t easy. Hoffman’s writing is poetic, with a staccato style and wealth of graphic detail that can overpower. His incessant irony becomes a touch laboured and some references are dated. All the more credit then to Andrew Keates’ direction: he keeps up to pace with the script and adds clarity. Using the cast as a chorus, frequently left on stage to react to events and take on a variety of roles, Keates makes the most of several set pieces, from bars to support groups and telephone helplines, with some intelligentstylised touches.

In the lead roles Tom Colley and David Poynor seem an odd couple at first, but they soon establish their characters’ shared history and manage to reflect the churning emotions experienced with a force that can make for uncomfortable viewing. Among the strong supporting cast Anna Tierney’s part as their friend stands out, as does Jordan Bernade, who plays Rich’s brother and a host of minor characters superbly.

For all this talent, As Is has a big problem – its jokes. There’s no reason any play dealing with dark subjects shouldn’t contain humour. Laughing in the face of death is common, but here those laughs seem too hollow. Some jokes fail because they are dated, a few are poorly delivered, most just aren’t funny. But the passion in the play is enough to recommend it. As a tragedy and a political statement, this work is important. As a love story in which commitment is promised unconditionally – as is – in sickness and in health, it is timeless in its power.

Until 31 August 2013


Photo by Scott Rylander

Written 9 August 2013 for The London Magazine

“Hard Feelings” at the Finborough Theatre

The Finborough Theatre is very much on trend with its latest production: Hard Feelings by Doug Lucie taps into current interest in the 1980s, the latest decade to receive a revival. First performed in 1982, set the year before, and not seen in London for nearly twenty-five years, dates are to the fore as we inevitably question recent history, drawing parallels and noting differences.

Following a group of friends after college, it’s a soundly constructed drama, if a touch lengthy, with plenty of comedy. Rusty and Annie have hopes to take the town, in music and modelling, and Jesse Fox and Margaret Clunie show great comic talents in these roles. Nick Blakeley is commendable as the “amendable” Baz, concerned to secure the roof over his head, and in thrall to Viv, whose parents own the house in the gentrified part of Brixton this privileged group are slumming it in.

Jane is the only member of the group immune to superficial obsessions and with some kind of career plan. Zora Bishop plays the role appropriately earnestly. With riots on the doorstep, and the idea of being an “extremist” carrying very different connotations to now, her boyfriend Tone, introduces some heavy-handed politics. This role is the play’s biggest problem and, despite a passionate performance, Callum Turner understandably struggles in the part. Tone’s attempts to “re-educate” this “nest of vipers” are arrogant and his analyses simplistic: in short he’s a frightful bore.

Designer Stephanie Williams has done a superb job with the 80s fashion on show, (notably in advance of the V&A’s Club to Catwalk exhibition) and director James Hillier has marshalled his young cast, for whom the early 1980s must feel medieval, admirably.

It’s the performance and the role of Viv that gets Hard Feelings a whole-hearted recommendation. Lucie has written a fascinating character with a satisfying depth that the talented Isabella Laughland really contributes to. Happy with her parents property investment, “sitting on their money watching it grow”, she starts out observing, “I’d rather watch it grow in Chelsea”. Fair enough. But Viv’s development, into something unhinged and formidably power crazed, is handled superbly – Laughland is magnetic, as she becomes a landlady not for turning.

Until 6 July 2013


Written 14 June 2013 for The London Magazine

“Rooms – A Rock Romance” at the Finborough Theatre

Receiving its European premier at the Finborough Theatre Rooms – A Rock Romance is written by husband and wife team Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon. A straightforward love story, set against the backdrop of the music business, it sees two Scottish singer-songwriters battling to find a balance between their careers and their relationship. Starting in 1977, it’s a pretty mad affair, which takes its inspiration from anarchic times. If energy is what you’re looking for you’ll find it here, with spirited performances from the dynamic duo of Cassidy Janson and Alexis Gerred.

After falling in love at first sight, Monica and Ian travel from Glasgow to London and then New York. From the pairs’ early gigs at Bat Mitzvahs to brief success on the punk and New Wave Scenes and a spell trying out cabaret, Rooms is more than a ‘Rock’ musical – there are so many styles it’s a little confusing, and the music fails to take hold. Similarly, the lyrics are quirky to say the least: a bizarre mix of the high falutin’ and the mundane. But the cast give their best in every scene and the pacey direction from Andrew Keates is a triumphant use of speed – at about 80 minutes long its difficult to spot exactly what’s awry. The whole thing keeps you on your feet and entertained.

Rooms has a sense of humour: an early concert for the Jewish community is called “let my people go go”, while the punk band is named ‘The Diabolicals’. But the laughs sit uneasily with serious issues touched upon, including abortion and alcoholism, dealt with so briefly that they have little emotional impact. The characters are appealing; Janson and Gerred’s commitment, if not their accents, is great, but they are an odd couple. Ian is an agoraphobic rock star and Monica a punk yet her idols are Barbra Streisand and Carly Simon. You can’t help but admire the ambition here, but even the show’s highlight, a hilariously inappropriate Bat Mitzvah song about bisexuals, is a little too crazy to succeed.

Until 18 May 2013


Photo by Scott Rylander

Written 26 April 2013 for The London Magazine

“Facts” at the Finborough Theatre

Renowned Canadian playwright Arthur Milner’s Facts has its European premiere at the wonderful Finborough Theatre. Tackling the thorny issue of Israel and Palestine in only 80 minutes, while toying with the detective genre, the play almost inevitably over-reaches itself, but this engaging piece is finely written and superbly produced.

Investigating the death of an archaeologist whose theories threaten the history the Jewish state is based upon, an Israeli and a Palestinian detective work together. When their prime suspect turns out to be a fundamentalist settler, the motivations and intense emotions experienced by all three men make the piece fly.

Director Caitlin McLeod handles both the developing debate and the growing tension clearly, with only a couple of marked pauses driven by the desire to show us something of the characters as individuals. These are difficult roles, with the players called on to voice well-rehearsed opinions, while maintaining a believable three-dimensionality. Georgia Lowe’s set is of the highest standard and the fantastic intimacy of the venue means that the focus is very much on the performers.

Paul Rattray gives a sterling performance as the settler suspect. Obnoxious from the start and potentially alienating, he manages to convince without descending into caricature. His compatriot, from a family of Zionists, describes himself as a modern man who despises religious bigots. In this fascinating role, Michael Feast has a nice take on the absurdities of the situation and conveys an underlying instability that results in a dangerous anger (it’s a shame that Feast doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in his character’s skin). Philip Arditti is enthralling as the Arab counterpart, putting up with the indignities of Israeli checkpoints in order to pursue the case and with an eye on the facts that belie his own firmly held beliefs.

Whether the facts really matter to any of Milner’s characters remains something of a mystery to us: the police play with the case as if it were a game – a valid enough point. But in its rush to be even-handedly condemning of all parties, despite all its qualities Facts is ultimately a little too ambitious for its own good.

Until 23 March 2013


Photo by Mike Shelford

Written 4 March 2013 for The London Magazine

“Hindle Wakes” at the Finborough Theatre

The Finborough Theatre continues its justly acclaimed tradition of revivals with a centenary production of Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes. Revolving around an affair that occurs during a Bank Holiday for Lancashire Mill workers, and the ensuing arguments among the parents of the couple who have played away, in Llandudno of all places, the play is a tightly constructed satire on Edwardian hypocrisy, handled with deft humour by director Bethan Dear.

Above all, Hindle Wakes is funny. The self-righteousness of the parents, determined that their children should (or shouldn’t) marry after making merry, is so unsubtle that the characters run straight into every trap set for them and Dear chooses to play it for broad comedy. There may be some room for reservation when it comes to the younger generation: Fanny, her weekend lover Alan and his fiancée Beatrice seem more engaged with their situation and choose to think about what they, rather than society, really want. But the Victorian generation is easy to parody, so Dear’s approach to go for the laughs makes sense.

The talented cast embraces the comedy marvellously. Peter Ellis and Richard Durden play the fathers with the shared sense of resolving the unfortunate event, and both give excellent renditions of gruff Northern manners. But it’s the female parts that really make Hindle Wakes stand out. The mothers, Anna Carteret and Susan Penhaligan, have meaty roles that they manage impressively without parody. And our heroine Fanny, the plain speaking Lancashire lass, startles and inspires with her frankness. Ellie Turner’s clarity and passion in the role do the character justice – I’d go to Llandudno with her anytime.

Until 29 September 2012


Photo by Claire Bilyard

Written 15 September 2012 for The London Magazine

“Cornelius” at the Finborough Theatre

The latest “rediscovery” of a play from the Finborough Theatre is Cornelius by J.B.Priestley and it’s a real gem. A rich text, full of ideas, humour and drama, it is not to be missed. Not content with revealing this hidden treasure, last performed in London seventy years ago, director Sam Yates gives this superb play the excellent production it deserves.

Cornelius is at first a gentle, office-based comedy, with a cast of amusing characters sure to entertain. In a strong ensemble special note has to be made of Beverley Klein who takes on two roles with great skill. Yates handles the comedy superbly with a masterful nod at what a modern audience makes of the more dated moments. Similar intelligence is seen dealing with the social themes that so engaged Priestley: Cornelius runs a business in trouble, in dire economic times, with work interrupted by desperate salesmen and creditors. Cleverly, Yates handles any parallels to our current state with the lightest of touches.

What really interests is Cornelius himself; a fantastic creation, Yates and his lead actor Alan Cox understand him wonderfully. Bluff and blustering, appealing in his modesty and humour, Cox is perfect in bringing out nuance and adding the touch of poetry that makes his character fascinating.

There’s romance for Cornelius but his relationships with the devoted Miss Porrin and the down to earth Judy, finely performed by Annabel Topham and Emily Barber respectively, show two sides of unrequited love that makes the piece feel refreshingly real.

Cornelius contains a touch of mystery and tragedy as well, coming from his business partner, the intense Murrison remarkably portrayed by Jamie Newall, giving rise to dark observations, such as the “scheme and scratch” nature of office work, that are sure to ring true with many. But there is hope in Cornelius that the production embraces in proud style. Yates brings great focus to a tight script, making Cornelius a riveting work and this production is not just the finest on the fringe but one of the hottest tickets in town.

Until 8 September 2012


Photo by Robert Workman

Written 17 August 2012 for The London Magazine