A SHILLING SHOCKER IS A JOY FOREVER
To come clean: one reason I dashed to catch this fresh back from holiday is not only that the Finborough is always interesting, but that family tradition tells us that Dion Boucicault’s 1868 play, a confection of dastardly deeds and heroic redemption, is one in which my great-grandfather (an actor of no great fame) appeared on tour. Possibly even with my great-grandmother as a harridan or heroine. It may be that a taste for melodramatic romance runs in the family. That was certainly satisfied in a roisteringly absurd two-hour tale of London life, directed with furious vigour by Phil Willmott .
A cast of twelve, including three musicians, featly trundles around a set of two ragged brick arches on castors , and shows a joyful relish in correctly overdoing the significant glances and gestures of despair, not to mention lines like “You fiend in human shape!” “I am your Father!” and “Stand aside, Chumley, I’ll interrogate the baggage!”. There is a particular pleasure in having such grand shouty melodrama right in your face in this teeny auditorium. It roars along, from the opening moment when a strapping Queen Victoria and a statue of Britannia (it talks, later…) welcome the first steam-train to run in the new London Underground District Line (piquantly, the last one just has last week, marking the 150th anniversary). Amid cries of alarm and stage-fog a figure they descry a figure on the rails silhouetted against the lights – aaaghhh…. and we’re only 30 seconds in.
Then the plot begins, involving, just as one would wish, a raddled scheming nightclub hostess whose criminality is matched only by her gift for Malapropisms, a decadent aristocratic heir, a tricky will, star-crossed love, betrayal, pregnancies, a drowning achieved with shiny mirrors, a mysterious tramp, a Salvation Army lady called Aviona Crumpet, a dastardly lawyer and mistaken identity under a veil. Oh, and apart from the traditional music-hall scene (sing along, do!), later we get a three-lady chorus of Russian tarts in ginger wigs and fur hats singing “Kalinka!” and chasing a policeman, while still playing fiddle and accordion.
The plot is pleasingly ridiculous, tying everything up in a proper happy ending for even the worst, and the performances vigorous . Victoria Jeffrey is a splendid Dicey Morris (I am proud to have had her crinoline sweep over my feet in the front row) and Jonathan le Billon as the hapless aristocratic hero deploys a deadpan helpless stare I particularly enjoyed. Jemima Watling as the one poignant character Eliza wisely keeps a lid on it and is actually rather touching, and Toby Wynn-Davies, frankly, was born to play an evil, conniving lawyer and should now be first call for all Dickens adaptations. Talking of Dickens, there’s even a cheeky Magwitchian rip-off in the plot – it was seven years after Great Expectations.
What the hell more do you want of a night out over a pub? Only eight more performances. Hurry. Get round there. It’ll take your mind off Boris…
box office finboroughtheatre.co.uk to 6 July