FringeReview UK 2023
Finborough’s absorbing ReDiscovered season continues with a triple-bill of plays directed by Melissa Dunne that after tonight, you might never wish to imagine apart. Of course they should transfer, be far better-known, and at least they’re packed out – grab a ticket if you possibly can. We can be grateful again for Neil McPherson’s curating yet another series of early 20th century revivals.
Written by Gertrude Robins, H M Harwood Directed by Melissa Dunne, Set Designer Alex Marker and Costume Designer Carla Joy Evans, Lighting Designer Jonathan Simpson, Sound Designer Farokh Soltani. Intimacy Direction Tian Brown-Simpson, Set Painter Ian Black.
Assistant Directors Catherine Barrie and Lila Heller, Production Photography Carla Joy Evans, Production Filming Adam Jones Lloyd.
Stage Manager Michael Simmons, ASM Maddy D-Houston, General Manager Ellie Renfrew.
Producer Andrew Maunder for Aardvark Theatre, Thanks to Olivia Rattley, Parm Choudry, Sabrina Stoeklin, and the Mill at Sonning
Till September 2nd
Finborough’s absorbing ReDiscovered season continues with a triple-bill of plays directed by Melissa Dunne that after tonight, you might never wish to imagine apart.
Gertrude Robins (1880-1917) died tragically young of TB after making her name in 14 plays (starting at the Gaiety, Manchester with these two), acting and in gaining a flying licence. H M Harwood (1874-1959) after his initial radicalism steered a course of huge interwar commercial success; but his earlier work and collaborations with wife F Tennyson Jesse are treasurable.
The first hour consists of Robins’ Makeshifts (1908) and its sequel, Realities (1911) beautifully transitioned as if in two acts. Indeed the shift in three years exactly marks the interval of the characters’ experience, as well as writing.
Harwood’s Honour Thy Father (1912) was banned for public performance till 1934, and critiques patriarchy even more forcefully. Beneath thin gentility, these plays seethe with indignation.
In all these works Alex Marker’s exquisite period set with its green-tiled mantlepiece (replaced in the third play by windows on one side), and the design-flecked blue-light-green eggshell wallpaper effect on both sides (painter Ian Black) are anchored by a circular table, two Persian rugs and period details including chaise-long and early gramophone.
It’s as if we’re eavesdropping on Sickert’s 1911 Ennui. With deft lighting Jonathan Simpson irradiates a gloaming with ghosts as the first actors apparate from nowhere. Farokh Soltani’s sound insinuates an early Grieg Lyric Piece and one by the forgotten Percy Eliott, the kind respectable young women played: there’s a bitter little twist in that. Costume designer Carla Joy Evans is as at home with threadbare gentility as she is in the last play with a sunburst of Edwardian bustle putting all else in the shade.
Genteel servant Caroline Parker (Philippa Quinn) and sister Dolly Parker (Poppy Allen-Quarmby) an infant schoolteacher, live lives of quiet desperation. Though Robins wrote these plays as comedies she irradiates them with compassion and heartbreak. The end of Makeshifts in Dunne’s direction turns it from that to a tiny tragedy, as both sisters face hopelessness.
Despite the one’s quiet suffragism, the other’s hard-won independence (Dolly paradoxically despises suffragism) their hopes turn on male approval. It’s devastating.
Whilst lodger Henry Thompson (Akshay Sharan) is affably despised for producing sweets and making inane weather comments, the sisters look beyond him to exciting, reptilian Albert Smythe (Joe Eyre), dashingly attractive, with idioms like “kids” soon adopted elsewhere and a host of clichés somehow brilliantly shoehorned into one character, one performance as Smythe presages 1980s greed. In both plays sheer danger as well as repellent sexism in bristling, perceptive Albert underscores why both sisters think him a catch; and how he coolly appraises each for marriage.
Whilst Dolly rightly comments: “Men fight shy of girls like me. They think we’re too clever” – Albert endorses this – Caroline’s more gentle, reflective nature (not far from Eleanor in Sense and Sensibility) is tremulously conveyed by Quinn. Quinn immediately engages sympathy in her eagerness as Albert – played with horrible insouciance and brio by Eyre – is drawn in by his addresses. But in the moment she leaves the room he engages Allen-Quarmby’s Dolly. He wants her but in the same breath slights her cleverness.
Here’s a portrayal of young women knowing the odds against them, yet both consenting to be played with. Albert’s attracted to both women, they to him, and amidst continual interruptions (Sharan squirmingly awkward as hapless Henry) they finally discover he’s plumped for someone else altogether, a woman with money. It’s cruel; Albert knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s also a brilliant tour-de-force for Robins, deploying Albert’s slang with deadly accuracy. The sense of thwartedness impels both women to decisions. But first the most desolate, powerful moment of all, as Caroline’s heart breaks.
In Realities we see how surprisingly well Caroline adapts to being wife and mother with Henry, and how almost like a new man he behaves. His consideration in tiny details of eking out Caroline’s delicious home-made jam, care for their baby and Caroline’s offstage mother point years ahead. But Albert’s not finished, and his wife Rose Smythe (Beth Lilly) arrives.
Lilly excels in exuberance in both her roles; here she’s superbly repellent: materialistic, boasting of her “at-homes” in a startling moment talking up her number of friends (46) like an influencer or counting Instagram followers. Her undisguised sneering, preening her comparative luxury and horror at children (“they age women”) are calculated to make Caroline shrink. Not only does Caroline begin to lament material comfort, she begins to think of the man providing them.
In fact they might spell disaster, for it’s not only clear Rosie is jealous, her husband openly declares it, when Henry, inviting him to visit, finds Albert takes him literally having just rowed with his wife. Rosie’s jealousy affects Albert like an aphrodisiac: after trying to humiliate Henry with a sneering practical joke, the explosive climax brilliantly upends all previous tensions. It’s an unexpectedly tender, affirmative ending. Quinn’s metamorphosis is beautifully calibrated over these two plays; each character glints with facets of a tiny masterpiece, both plays taken together.
Honour Thy Father
H M Harwood’s work is even darker. Bankrupt, upper-middle-class, once-successful gambler Edward Morgan (Andrew Hawkins) and his wife Jane Morgan (Suzan Sylvester) are holed up in Bruges with their exuberant, innocent younger daughter Madge (Beth Lilly again). We see Edward compulsively losing at cards to seedy Richard Stearn (Akshay Sharan), a man he innately despises because he’s in trade. Nevertheless he wants to introduce him to Claire (Poppy Allen-Quarmby), visiting elder daughter from London.
With landlady Madame Pellet (Quinn in a tiny role, speaking French) dunning with quiet insistence, it’s clear they live off Claire’s earnings. Subtly, we get the sense Edward would contemplate marrying off his daughter as a higher kind of pimping. The irony in that proves blistering. Hawkins irradiates bluster, a man whose flatulent pomposity’s exposed as hollow.
Sylvester’s Jane is a hypnotically shrunk woman, who comprehends little of what’s going on, can measure only by lack, as she declares in miniature protest. But she’s a victim of a system that refuses to educate women, and this is Harwood’s point. Edward thinks Madge shouldn’t be training to be a gym instructor, something she and Claire want, and Claire’s paying. It’s clear Claire knows from experience what having no qualifications means.
Lilly’s captivating with a different exuberance to her Rosie Smythe; her energy crosses darkness with a sun-stabbing innocence. Her Madge is excited, as full of teenage optimism at her sister’s glamour as Allen-Quarmby is of her own bleakness; and parries delicately, heartbreakingly to deny Madge a London visit.
Though early on we guess at themes from Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (already 18 years old), that’s not the point. Allen-Quarmby’s mesmerising: first as she confronts Sharan’s sneering Stearn, who’s met Claire very differently in London, now resorting to blackmail.
Intimacy director Tian Brown-Simpson is again called to choreograph a brutally realistic assault (there’s one in Realities too). Then, having given searing witness to her own integrity, Claire confronts her outraged father.
It’s a thrilling scene, as Claire excoriates patriarchy layer by layer flaying gentility: her pianistic talent, her pretty watercolours providing no way of earning beyond 15 shillings a week in a shop, mostly by being “accommodating”. And she chose to help her family.
The litany of details still furnishes parallels, but as Claire triumphs when Madame Pellet arrives in her ringing “He that pays the piper calls the tune” and gives a specific order, you want to cheer. But you also realise what Claire returns to. She foresees no security, no pleasure, no partner; a precarity of looks as long as they last. In 1912 such conditions looked to last forever. The terrible freedoms ahead shadow none of these plays: they cast shadows enough.
The cast is first-rate, and Quinn’s and Allen-Quarmby’s performances contrastingly radiant. Quinn’s inner light, minute registers of hope, despair and finally release, are quietly magical. Allen-Quarmby’s vivid poster-perfect Claire starts creasing with care for Lilly, contempt for the men. She blazes with ferocity, truth and – mesmerisingly – steely victory.
Of course these plays should transfer, be far better-known, and at least they’re packed out – grab a ticket if you possibly can before it closes on September 2nd. I’m bitter at having missed Dunne’s revival here of suffragette Cicely Hamilton’s Just to Get Married and Sarah Daniels’ Masterpieces. But grateful again for Neil McPherson’s curating yet another series of early 20th century revivals. It continues next month with T C Murray’s 1910 Birthright, set on an Irish farm.