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FringeReview UK 2023

Salt-Water Moon

Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre

Genre: Costume, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Finborough Theatre


Low Down

It’s a splendid moon-filled night in Coley’s Point in 1926.

Young Jacob Mercer has returned home to the tiny and remote Newfoundland fishing village, desperate to win back his former sweetheart, Mary Snow.

But Mary has become engaged to wealthy Jerome McKenzie, and is still hurt and bewildered by Jacob’s abrupt departure for Toronto a year earlier.

Even to speak to Jacob will put Mary’s wedding plans in jeopardy. Stubborn and independent, she is determined never to forgive Jacob…

A heartbreakingly romantic exploration of young love, set against the shores at the edge of the British Empire.

Written by David French and Directed by Peter Kavanagh, Set and Costume Designer Mim Houghton, Lighting Design Neill Brinkworth, Stage Manager Martha Baldwin, Dialect Coach Mary Howland.

Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.

Till January 28th


Whistling Jacob Mercer (Joseph Potter) startles Mary Snow (Bryony Miller) with all the force of wounds ripped open. He’s bringing silent western film-star Tom Mix back to Newfoundland; but is he all hat?

In David French’s 1984 Salt-Water Moon – part of a five-play sequence and receiving its UK premiere at the Finborough – it’s August 1926 in Coley’s Point.

After David Ireland’s and Julia Pascal’s scorching plays the astonishing Finborough turn from epic to brooding intensity. French’s play isn’t anything like as dated as it might appear: hence its staple repertoire in Canada. Directed by Peter Kavanagh whose acclaimed Not Quite Jerusalem here in 2020 focused on politics inflecting love, it provides vintage Finborough production values. Mim Houghton’s simple set features iron seats, a packing case, with period clothes and a telescope mainly to spy out Neill Brinkworth’s  lighting – a magically rhythmic scatter of stars and slant moonlight.

Jacob – in Potter’s energised and truthful rendering of an ardent, vulnerable, sexually would-be-confident 18-year-old – is one who thinks he can pick up where he abruptly left off. And now Mary’s engaged to someone he has reasons to despise: wealthy Jerome McKenzie. So how much of Jacob’s return is pique?

Mary, rightly hurt by his unexplained vanishing a year back, keeps pushing feelings back down. Miller’s rapt, sometimes radiant self both reaching out to and snapping back, is edged with French’s lyricism, a taut spare salty thing in itself given wing here by both Miller and Potter, who  faithfully render the Newfie accent – sometimes Cornish-Canadian, sometimes as here Irish, which self-communes like an extended love-song. It’s exquisitely caught here. Newfoundland wasn’t yet part of Canada: its standstill language is here still partly to be relished in a frozen time-capsule. Huge credit to actors and dialect coach Mary Howland: it’s a hypnotic, unfamiliar, unforgettable world.

Though only six months younger than Toronto-trotting Jacob, Mary’s own world is circumscribed by reluctant service, a war-dead father, traumatised mother and a sister more or less indentured. And she’s not the only one: you’ll find out about how mariners are ‘in collar’ from May to September, and a microcosm of micro-oppression. French’s play laps at a classic love-dilemma through the hurt done to both characters by class, even imperial oppression; visited on them mainly by what’s happened to their parents. It occasions both their past and present actions. Can they own it, even escape it?

The play, meant to run 90 minutes, comes in at just under 80, partly because Kavanagh has edited the text down considerably, and partly because Potter in particular goes at his delivery with a lick of coiled adolescent brio, wholly believable if nominally against the rhythms of the play. It’s as if 2023 won’t indulge what 1984 has, and in one sense reading the text we’re robbed of quite a few sidelights.

On the other hand, the minutiae of Lot’s incest, rather obsessively detailed, gets a good edit, we really don’t miss it! And there’s points which might not engage at least a British audience where Kavanagh clearly feels the pith of the play is worked against by French’s text. Interesting to see how Canadians play it now. In particular the backdrop of war, where detailed telling – some of this survives –plays to what Canada re-invokes of the Newfoundland regiment’s sacrifice at the Somme, a battle impacting on Mary and Jacob even now. But would such details and history-lessons really inform the testosterone surges of Jacob and sucker-punches to Mary?

There is admittedly now a gaunt lyricism made gaunter by these excisions, a world curtailed; but we don’t miss it. The sheer dramaturgy of two people onstage means we know if someone walks off they’ll be back, though the end keeps us guessing. French beautifully plays this, a set of verbal negatives against a tremendous glow.

Miller – visibly moved invoking Mary’s circumscribed horizon, its brutal curtailments – aches with truth. Transcendently poised this is someone you believe attracts love through sheer quiet intensity. Miller’s Mary is poised to explode, but intimacy here is played like a Bollywood film. Potter, whirling like a satellite round Mary’s telescope-capped star – a brass object playing at several obvious levels – catches Jacob’s puppyish braggadocio but also his sincerity, his flawed fight-flight responses, and most of all his exuberance, jumping and flouncing on the metal seat.  Their chemistry’s palpable.

There’s no use railing against quasi-patriarchal conventions here since French does it for us: brings out what’s limited both social indeed sexual aspirations, notions of sexual ownership, being spoken for, indentured; and makes us want to bonfire the lot. So come and see what happens.

And keep coming back to the miraculous Finborough, whose own gaunt lyricism, hauntingly lit, is a production hallmark this play finds its ideal in. That, and a policy of mounting only new plays and revivals of ones over 25 years old means a space that makes it new every time.