REVIEW: The One Day Of The Year, Finborough Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

The One Day Of The Year at The Finborough Theatre
Fiona Press, Mark Little and Paul Haley. Photo: Mark Douet

The One Day Of The a Year
Finborough Theatre
May 21
5 Stars

It’s approaching Dawn. The Father is irritable, getting dressed, ordering his patient, down-to-Earth wife to get his medals. He has a Dawn Service to attend. She bustles off to find them. Father yells at his sleeping son. Get up, we need to leave for the Service. The son, guilty but defiant, yells that he is not going. Father storms into Son’s room. The lad is unflinching, in shirt and underwear, standing on his bed, holding his ground. No Dawn Service for him. Father thinks about it, realises this battle can’t be won, takes the medals from his wife, let’s her dress him and off he goes. Nothing will stop him enjoying his day.

The Son feels…something. Perhaps ineffable, but something. His Father’s old war companion arrives at the house, ready to watch the Dawn Service and the March on the rented television with Mother. The Son turns on the radio. He might not go to the Dawn Service but he will listen to it. Why? Habit? Or something else? As he dresses, the Last Post plays. The old man stiffens to attention, remembering; the Son pauses, wondering.

The juxtaposition of these two men, divided by generations, education and experience, but held in thrall by the power of a piece of music, and all that comes with it, settles permanently, inexorably into the minds and souls of the audience. As evocative and moving as theatre can be.

Gregory Doran has recently declared Death of a Salesman the greatest American play of the Twentieth Century. While many will argue with him about that, the issue that kept arising in my mind was what would be the greatest Australian play of the Twentieth Century? London stages are rarely blessed with Australian plays, although Australian actors are regular fixtures on those stages, some in ex-pat mode, some not. It comes as a surprise to many London theatregoers that Australians even write plays.

But they do. And, often, quite good ones.

In any sensible list of the top ten plays written by an Australian, Alan Seymour’s The One Day Of The Year would surely appear.

In 1960, when it was first produced in Australia, it caused a sensation, found itself banned, and the subject of vitriolic and naked contempt. Policeman kept order at theatres where it played. It has been studied by generations of school children in Australia, risen in and fallen out of favour, attained iconic status, and been all but forgotten. How fitting, then, that the industrious Finborough Theatre should choose to revive it in the centenary year of the Gallipoli Campaign; the Finborough has a well-justified reputation for rediscovering lost, overlooked, or forgotten theatrical jewels, so Seymour’s play is a perfect home for it.

Because, make no mistake, it is a jewel.

As well crafted as any kitchen sink or naturalistic drama of the time, the play endures because it is about universal concepts which have the capacity to touch and affect the lives of everyone who sees it, whether they are Australian or not: the futility of war; the notion of valuing another’s point of view; the consequences of education or a lack thereof; and the peculiar frailty and difficulty of the bond between father and son, mother and son, husband and wife.

Despite its trappings and narrative, this is not a play about Anzac Day, the public holiday in Australia where attention is paid to those who fought for their country in wars, those who were killed or maimed, or worse, survived. No. In the same way Death of a Salesman is fundamentally about the American Dream, so The One Day Of The Year is about the Australian Dream, or perhaps more exactly, about the dream of what it is to be an aspirational Australian.

There are other, obvious parallels with Miller’s play: the central father figure knows he is a failure but copes with that in different ways; the tension in the play comes from father and son, and reaches its apex in a confrontation where the son forces the father to face facts; there is a worn, faithful and tired woman trying to keep her family from tearing itself apart; and there is a wise, thoughtful, and insightful old friend of the father who tries to stabilise the situation and avoid disaster.

But there the similarities (apart from inherent greatness) end. Miller wrote a play about big themes and big picture state of the nation issues in the form of a domestic drama; Seymour wrote a domestic drama about class, values and compromise, in the form of an epic struggle about a fundamental cornerstone of Australian identity.

Director Wayne Harrison, whose revival of The One Day Of The Year opened last night at the Finborough, understands this completely. He collaborated with Alan Seymour on this version of the play, updating it in subtle, but effective, ways. It is a great pity that Seymour died in April this year and was unable to witness the rebirth of his most famous play.

Because this is a pitch-perfect revival of a great play. Harrison has mined the work carefully, found the truths, the touchstones, the profundity, and brought it all to vivid, extraordinary life. This is, by far, the funniest version of this play I have ever seen and, as a direct consequence of that, it is also the most moving, touching and insightful version I have ever seen. And, over the years, I have seen dozens of productions of this play.

Harrison, wisely, uses the limitations of the Finborough space to advantage. The simple set (Catherine Morgan) establishes precisely the frugal and uncomplicated life the Cooke family leads. There is a kitchen and Hughie’s bedroom, with its pull down single bed. There is no extravagance in the Cooke household. Harrison makes good use of the sparse setting – characters can move from space to space for effect. When Hughie is explaining his embarrassment about his family and their foibles, he can wander into the space where they are and they can demonstrate his affront.

Unexpectedly, there is clever use of projections as part of the tapestry of the language of the play. However one might praise the coda Jonathan Munby has added to The Merchant of Venice currently playing at the Globe, the new ending to this play is nothing short of brilliant, reflecting, clearly and concisely, the themes of tradition, sacrifice and loss which Seymour weaves through the text.

This is as beautifully and thoughtfully directed a piece of dramatic theatre as any currently playing on a London stage. It does not have the resources of the RSC’s Death Of A Salesman, but it leaves that production for dead in terms of dramatic sensibility and theatrical coherence.

The mostly spot on casting aids Harrison’s vision immensely.

Mark Little, in probably the performance of his life, is an assured, complex and very funny, very human, Alf. A veteran of the Second World War, Alf is a traditional type, who is unashamedly working class (he works an elevator to pay the bills) but who has scrimped and saved to ensure his son, Hughie, has an education and can have the kind of opportunities Alf was himself denied. Loud, very fond of a drink and an archetypal whinger (he would probably sink a few pints with Nigel Farage), Alf is almost a parody of himself.

Almost. In truth, he is that wonderful, drunken old rogue that gets too drunk and too silly, but who everyone forgives because, when all is said and done, he is just an ordinary bloke doing the best he can. There is an undercurrent of violence about him too and this establishes his worst aspect, the outer limits of his excess. This is a play written at a time when masculinity was differently defined. Alf treats everyone he loves equally badly, mainly because he has had his own way for so long, but, equally, he really does love them, and he shows it. When he can.

Alf is a huge role, and Little gives every aspect of the part proper and detailed attention. The exuberant ebullience, the flash of sudden unpredictable anger, the weary silences, the insistent temper, the fierce determination, the befuddled appearance, the wicked sense of humour, the alcoholic stupor, the Falstaffian story telling, the unspoken devotion – Little plays it all, coherently, sensitively and incredibly effectively. It’s a brave and fearless performance; Little is unafraid to reveal the ugly side of Alf, and quite right too. Without that, the part and the play cannot work.

Little is blessed with superb, faultless support from Fiona Press (his long suffering wife, Dot) and Paul Haley (Wacka, the veteran of both World Wars, who was war companion to both Alf and his father).

Press makes Dot completely real in every way. Dot is the speaker of truth in the play – she observes everything and comments on proceedings with an acuity that is unerring, a wisdom that is unmatched, and a sincerity that is deeply felt. Press effortlessly conveys all of Dot’s qualities; her stillness is inspired, but her eyes and mouth never stop registering her mood and thoughts. As a force of true, forgiving love, capable of brutal honesty, and wry off-handedness, Press’ Dot is masterful in every way. A complete pleasure to watch.

The role of Wacka is a trap for bad actors; Seymour’s writing can present as an opportunity for extremely sentimental, slushy, over-egging. But not here. Haley is exquisite as the old veteran, who loves the Cookes as if they were his own, and who does not want to boast of his battle achievements. Taciturn, and a true foil for Alf’s imperious demands, Haley presents a Wacka of great depth, of unrelenting stoicism. You truly believe he was there at Gallipoli, facing the slaughtering guns, and then, later, a lifetime of pushing the memories aside, quietly stern. When, finally, Dot coaxes him to talk about his pain, Haley is riveting, chilling, exceptional. He is also undeniably funny. It’s a finely tuned, perfectly calibrated performance.

James William Wright plays Hughie, Dot and Alf’s only child, with skill and aplomb. Tall, gangly, handsome and lost, Wright’s photography-obsessed Hughie is the perfect angry, rebellious offspring. He shows clearly Hughie’s subjugation to the feminine charms of his maybe girlfriend Jan and the near catastrophic consequences that has for his family. His relationship with both parents is finely judged, from the gentle adoration for his mother, whom he bitterly regrets upsetting, through the regret and humble shame he feels for his treatment of his surrogate Grandfather, Wacka, to the fear and loathing he is quick to chuck at the father who he momentarily despises, but who he knows has slaved his whole life for his, Hughie’s, betterment. It’s a raw, exposed performance, appealing and fractious in equal parts.

Two moments particularly mark the wide range of Wright’s skills here. He makes Alf’s vicious assault on him completely believable; you almost feel the bruises forming on your own body as you watch Wright’s fearful, little boy response. Then, later, when he grasps his father’s hand in an open, unequivocal demonstration of paternal love, he breaks your heart a different way. Although he needs to relax more, and trust his performance enough to permit pauses and reflective moments which sustain tension, Wright gives a first rate performance of a tricky role.

There is no question that the hardest role in the play is that of Jan, the upper class girl who is slumming it with Hughie, using him for her own ends, sexual and professional. It’s a thankless role in many ways, but crucial. Jan represents the aspiration that Alf and Dot have slaved to permit Hughie to access but she also embodies everything that they both find contemptuous about entitled people and their casual disregard for the worth of the working classes. Without Jan, there is no grit in the shell and Hughie cannot shift from oyster to pearl. She has to be attractive enough to enslave Hughie, but cold and condescending enough to incur the wrath of both Alf and Dot.

It is an almost impossible ask for an actress, the role of Jan, but Adele Querol strives valiantly. She has no difficulty with the prickly, ghastly side of Jan; Querol, manages that deliciously, and with real flair, but she needs to flesh out that part of Jan which mesmerises Hughie. Querol needs to play the sex card more determinedly, more vibrantly, more all-consumingly. Jan reduces the otherwise eloquent and articulate Hughie to a fumbling mess of testosterone gibbering and it is critical to see that. Dot sees it – she questions Jan’s value. The audience, and Hughie, needs to see it too.

The costumes (Holly Rose Henshaw) evoke the sense of Australia in the 60s superbly and the lighting design from Marec Joyce is really beautiful, evoking profound beauty in some of tableaux. There is clever sound too – judiciously and pertinently underscoring the narrative, Chris Drohan does unobtrusive but very effective work.

Harrison has achieved something quite remarkable here. A revival, a rebirth of a classic play without bells and whistles, just relying upon intelligent, visionary story telling and first rate acting. Mark Little’s mercurial, bombastic and, ultimately, desperate Alf is a performance for the history books and the support he has from Press, Haley and Wright is exceptional.

There is no directorial masturbation here, no waste of funds or talent, no pointless updating, no idiotic relocation, no “for the sake of it” cleverness or indulgence. There is simply a beautiful production of a world class play, illuminated by sensitive, profoundly skilled direction and superb performances.

Would that Wayne Harrison would direct more for the London stage.

This is the best straight drama ( that is, not a musical) playing in any London theatre at present.

Do anything to see it.

The One Day Of The Year runs until 13 June 2015 at the Finborough Theatre

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