24th August 2017
John Galsworthy has earned enduring popularity through his prose fiction, especially the twice-televised ‘Forsyte Saga’, but he is less remembered for his plays, and on the evidence of this script, revived beautifully by Project One in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough, it is easy to see why. There is a lot of clever, brightly written dialogue, and a couple of scenes that have some emotional depth, but what this drama doesn’t have is the one thing that is so compellingly present in the history of Soames and Irene and all the rest of the Forsytes, a central, powerful conflict.
Instead, we get an exquisite post-Great War middle class dining room of the March family (an aptronym if there ever was one) – a triumphant creation by Alex Marker with enough in it to reward scrutiny for the entire three acts of this domestic yarn. Peopling it are characters who are mostly only partially realised: gruff father Geoffrey (David Shelley); capable mother Joan (Carolyn Backhouse); moody son Johnny (Duncan Moore); perky daughter Mary (Eleanor Sutton); committed cook (Janet Amsden); lovable rogue of a window cleaner Mr Bly (Vincent Brimble) and his daughter-with-a-past whom he seeks to place in the employ of the family in the position of housemaid, Faith Bly (his real-life daughter, Charlotte Brimble). In fact, the father and daughter story has the potential to become a re-run of Doolittle and Eliza in ‘Pygmalion’ (1913): the comparison with Shaw is instructive – in his hands, the clash of classes is given real dramatic urgency. Galsworthy may share many of the same reformist ideas as GBS, but he is sadly a very long way from possessing the same gift for creating fascinating theatre. Nevertheless, as he makes the bulk of the talk descend upon these representatives of British society he does often give them funny or witty or thoughtful things to say. At one point, Johnny is digging his heels in and refusing to budge while reading ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, ‘Little Women’ and The Bible: another quips, ‘You don’t want to leave him up there with all that inflammatory literature’. How Ortonesque!
There is a lot in the text that is as jolly as that and you might think that the show would produce a lot of laughs. Alas, in Geoffrey Beever’s methodical direction it doesn’t; well, let us be optimistic and say, ‘Not yet, anyway’. As things stand, there is a quiet, even grave, seriousness about the manner in which scenes are played that masks flashes of humour more often than giving them a chance to sparkle, and it is not altogether clear why. It being difficult to warm to these people, we are not well placed to care about their lives. The plot itself is barely present enough to hold our attention: a very, very minor flirtation occurs between the son and maid, a teacup into which is poured a very outsized and unmerited storm. And that’s it. Only in the dying minutes of the brief third act do two grossly under-used figures walk in: Faith’s smooth young man Blunter (another – crashing – aptronym, Jacob Coleman) soon pursued by the most successfully managed characterisation PC Barnabas (Christopher White, who seems much more to suggest a rather more elevated rank, perhaps an ‘Inspector’ calling…? – this play dates from 1922, let us remember). With them on stage, and Faith blazing her way – at last – out of her downtrodden, muted role, the play effortfully tries to kindle some heat. But it’s all over before it has any chance to get going.
Much time is said to pass in the drama, and we do get three ‘courses’ of apparently different meals being served; the flowers at the centre of the dining table change, but nothing else seems to. Even Georgia de Grey’s costume budget does not run to giving the cast changes of outfit, emphasising the permanence of their world, possibly. Robbie Butler lights it simply, with a nice touch of managing some symbolist gestures, especially at the heavily metaphorical close. Richard Bell provides period music that is so lively one could cheerfully listen to it all evening. Overall, however, it is a worthy but rather torpid outing for a family who have been ignored professionally for 85 years. One wonders how long it will be before they get another chance at attracting our attention.
Until 9 September 2017