THE 1930’S SPEAK TO US AGAIN…
It’s 1937, hard times for the just-managing family. The Monkhams are broke, dreading creditors and bailiffs. The great hope is that the son Clive, bashing at a keyboard and surrounded by crumpled rejects, is about to have a play in the West End, which will make him a fortune and solve everyone’s problems. Gaily his mother Rhoda plans it all: her daughters can quit of dead-end jobs and problematic romances, they can move to a bigger flat and even rescue the daily woman Mrs Batley from her foul son-in-law. Clive himself sees the coming success as his chance to marry Frances the depressed, grieving lodger and sail to Hollywood. She meanwhile is being courted by a dull lonely older man in order to have someone “all to herself”. Widowed mother Rhoda, remembering her glory days as a second-rate 1990s ingenue , just looks forward to paying off bills and debts, sorting out her children’s problems and making anything other than shepherd’s pie and treacle pudding (there’s a real one demolished on stage later).
Everything hangs on Clive – as he points out, the entire household’s future is built on belief in his genius. Chekhov-like, Rodney Ackland’s whole play is built on a web of hopes and dependences: a family and its outriders dreaming of the great escape. For a 1937 play it is perfect for now, for anecdotes of quick success fuel dreams of celebrity and fortune. Today it might be a freak Girl-on-The-Train success, a startup website, a viral Youtube that saves the family.
We recognize them all. There’s Adam Buchanan’s boyish, impatient writer Clive, facing his moment of truth with adolescent eagerness and despairs; the sisters, willowy table-dancer Lou (Peta Cornish) with her exotic, fed-up French husband, and Allegra Marland as Joan, sleeping with her testy, boozy boss. Sad Frances in the corner, bohemian delusional Marigold and even Oliver the starving, studiedly offensive but oddly irresistible poet who disturbs Clive’s peace with unsolicited criticism and takes his money (and treacle pudding) as a tribute to his “genius”: we know them all.
Kingpin of the play, though, is Ackland’s quite marvellous creation of Rhoda, the mother, given vivid life by Sasha Waddell. Determinedly soldiering on, fuelled by the Light Programme, breaking into dated dance routines between outbreaks of worry, she mothers the lot of them, a bustling scuttling beacon of hope and delusion as each daughter returns to the fold and the flat becomes ever more overcrowded. . We watch them through the approach of the crucial first night – and the cruel moments of reviews as they must test the mantra they must all live by .Clive expresses it: “It’s a law of nature that we shan’t look too far forward. Something to look forward to is something for one’s mind to stop at, like a wall in time, between ourselves and death…when the wall is reached it disappears and quickly up goes another wall. Even very old people erect little walls between themselves and death, even if it’s only tomorrow’s dinner”. Glorious, true, perennial.
These revivals of half-forgotten playwrights are gold dust. You learn about your country and its past, as well as about universal humanity. Such rediscoveries only occasionally happen in the West End or even the NT but on the fringes, perilously funded and fuelled largely by love and fascination (and here, backing by Stage One), tiny theatres stage forgotten plays with casts of unmodernised lavishness (eleven of them! I haven’t even mentioned Josie Kidd’s touchingly funny Mrs Batley, or Andrew Cazanave Pin as Lou’s fed-up Frenchman). But these well-made, entertaining, perceptive plays from the pre-John-Osborne era need reviving, just as we rediscover baking, or proper tailoring, or make do and mend. The heroes of this archaeology are the Jermyn and even more this theatre: the tiny, determined, ingenious and always classy Finborough. So thanks for the Ackland. Not least because, with humour, he allows his poor lab-rats a prosaic glimmer of hope in the end. An Ibsen wannabe, or a lot of moderns, would likely have ended on a suicide or a bankruptcy.
box office 0844 847 1652 finboroughtheatre.co.uk to 22 Dec