Tag Archives: Finborough Theatre

“The Wind and the Rain” at the Finborough Theatre

It’s hard to go wrong with the revivals that make up part of the exciting programming at Neil McPherson’s west London venue. The chance to see moments of theatrical history, always produced to the highest standard, is a great opportunity. This first London revival in 80 years of a smash hit from 1933 fits the bill perfectly.

Following our sensitive hero, Charles Tritton, through his time at medical school, the piece might be considered a coming of age drama. How this bright young thing deals with the world through the men he meets, students of different ages, is a neat exploration of socialization. Sophisticated older figure Paul, the lazy and libidinous Gilbert, or nice but dim Harvey are all potential models for Charles. These characters work in relation to Tritton, but are thought-provoking in their own right.

What Charles takes from these other men with regards his relationships to women isn’t much of a plot. The play’s focus becomes a love triangle between the girl Charles’ mother wants him to marry and another, Anne, he meets while studying. That his intended fiancée, Jill, is described as a “proxy sister” makes the drama falter for a contemporary crowd. Overall, it’s hard to appreciate the pressure here. Thankfully, Hodge doesn’t want it to be hard work; the dialogue is rich and director Geoffrey Beevers impeccable work provides time to explore its humour.

Although the roles are uneven, it is with characters that The Wind and the Rain is at its best. Charles is a strong central figure and the performance from Joe Pitts is enjoyable. Pitts has confused anxiety down pat (no small achievement) but also follows the character’s growth skilfully. The performance claims sympathy for Charles and his vaguely Bohemian views, even though efforts to consider others end up oddly selfish! Privileged and moody, spoilt even – Pitts does a great job showing it all.

While outnumbered on stage, the women in the show do well. There’s a neat comic part for the excellent Jenny Lee as the land lady. But it’s the love interests that excite. It would be easy to roll eyes at some of this writing: Jill is giggling and giddy, Anne far too self-sacrificing. But wait a moment. Two brilliant performances from Helen Reuben and Naomi Preston-Low respectively elevate these characters. Reuben brings out some of the show’s best humour and a steely edge that shows what a careful study her work is. Preston-Lowe secures the independence of her character while adding the romance the piece demands. 

The Wind and the Rain ran in the West End for over a thousand performances; this revival is a glance at the theatrical mainstream, rather than the avant-garde, of the past. If the play strikes contemporary audiences as quaintly old-fashioned, maybe too slow with a thin plot, its dialogue and characters intrigue. As a guess, the excellent performances in this conscientious revival are the key to understanding the play’s success both then and now.

Until 5 August 2023


Photo by Mark Senior

“Salt-Water Moon” at the Finborough Theatre

Along with its reputation for revivals, Neil McPherson’s west London venue has a knack for delivering great writing, often from abroad. Any play put on here is a safe bet and this UK première from Canadian writer David French is a great start to 2023.

A sophisticated script underlies the simple romance in Salt-Water Moon. Returning to his home in Newfoundland after a year away, the prodigal Jacob aims to win back his sweetheart, Mary, only a month before her wedding.

The characters drive the drama. Is Mary really as cold and angry as she seems? Bryony Miller’s excellent performance in the role shows the character’s “steel and fire”. And is Jacob genuine or just a “schemer”? Joseph Potter brings charm to the role but preserves a suspicion about the “brazen” Jacob that slowly melts away.

As the couple awaits the return of Mary’s fiancé (a vivid character, despite never setting foot on stage), French gives us far more than the suggested scenario of “a wolf and a lamb”, making this a romance we want to be rekindled. As the odds against the couple mount, so does the audience’s emotional involvement.

Motives for both characters are carefully revealed as they journey towards the truth so that the play has suspense despite a lack of action. Peter Kavanagh’s impeccable direction is suitably restrained and the minimal yet stylish set by Mim Houghton is similarly appropriate.

It is the confidence in French’s writing that stands out. Many a historical drama could benefit from such a sure hand – one that doesn’t feel the need for extraneous detail. Likewise, the sense of a real community – still dealing with the aftermath of World War I and full of inequality – shows us the lived experience of its characters with no sniff of a history lesson. This is impressive writing: Salt-Water Moon is a quality show through and through with a strong script skilfully produced.

Until 28 January 2023


Photo by Lucy Hayes

“Distinguished Villa” at the Finborough Theatre

As fans of London’s fringe theatre know, productions at the Finborough balance new writing with rediscovered classics. The venue hit the jackpot for the former earlier this year with Sophie Swithinbank’s Bacon. Now it’s the turn of the latter: a hit play from 1926 by another female writer, Kate O’Brien, that is thoroughly admirable.

“Refined” is the key word – that’s what proud housewife Mabel wants her home, the property that gives the play its title, to be. But all of O’Brien’s six characters suffer as respectability conflicts with happiness; they are tormented in sophisticated detail by unsuitable relationships and social mores.

O’Brien was breaking ground with her subject matter – looking at suburbanites and “the secret life at home”. The play tackles sex and mental health in what was considered an advanced fashion. Of course, it can’t shock now, but it’s impressively thorough. And there’s a fine sense of rage bubbling under the sophisticated surface.

If someone wrote a period show with this many stiff upper lips (let alone some of the dialogue) today, it would beggar belief. It’s frankly a struggle – you want to shake most of the characters at some point – but O’Brien was there. She is the source material! Her writing makes sure that the repression becomes oppressive.

Brian Martin and Tessa Bonham Jones
Brian Martin and Tessa Bonham Jones

Unfortunately, it is too easy to tell that O’Brien was primarily a novelist. While the plot creates tension, Distinguished Villa is woefully static. Director Hugh Fraser is wise not to try and fight this. The series of scenes, with plodding combinations of characters, is predictable. But the play doesn’t drag and most of what is said is interesting. The scenes themselves are tightly written – there’s an especially strong one for Tessa Bonham Jones, who plays the youngest character and has a stunning moment in the spotlight.

O’Brien seems to miss omniscient narration too much. But it’s easy to enjoy the performances on offer here – again, refined describes them. Mia Austen shows great intelligence as Mabel, combining comic appeal while respecting the character’s arguments and showing her troubles. Matthew Ashforde gives a moving performance as her depressed husband, revealing that the role’s unbelievable timidity stems from deeper problems.

If both leads, and the pivotal role of the ever-observing upper-class lodger Ms Llewellyn (played with great skill by Holly Sumpton), are sometimes flat, the cast makes the most of them. Similarly, Simon Haines and Brian Martin, whose roles are really only about who they may or may not marry, do a great job. Beautifully crafted under Fraser’s tutelage, these are all wonderful studies. But, despite all the detail, I struggled to thoroughly believe in any of characters.

The result of the cast’s fine work is a production full of class. Which is appropriate, as O’Brien’s eye on social status is fascinating. And Carla Evans’ costumes deserve a special mention for accuracy (they are lovely, but this isn’t high fashion as much as home-made derivations). Distinguished Villa is a play more interesting than moving, one to respect more than love. But the chance to see such top-notch craft shouldn’t be missed.

Until 1 October 2022


Photos by Carla Evans

“The Straw Chair” at the Finborough Theatre

There’s a lot going on in Sue Glover’s historical drama. The true history of an imprisoned noblewoman is told alongside the story of a newly married missionary and his young wife. Meanwhile the setting, a remote island steeped in paganism, elaborates on themes of religion and power. If the script is disjointed – an odd mix of romance and intrigue – The Straw Chair is always interesting.

First the location (the jail of Lady Rachel Grange as well as the parish needing a priest), the Hebridean island of St Kilda, is a character it its own right. Embodied by the only local we meet, Oona, played with great charm by Jenny Lee, there is a lot of anthropological detail. Might the role have a touch more drama? Should we be suspicious of Oona’s role as jailer? Nonetheless, her love of the island is evocative.

To hell, to Hades, to Kilda

For Lady Rachel, kidnapped and carted off to a house with only one chair, it is understandable and amusing that she hates St Kilda. In a commanding performance, Siobhan Redmond makes this great character fascinating as she plays with degrees of madness. She isn’t a figure of sympathy – her snobbery ensures that – but, as a mix of Mrs Rochester and Lady Macbeth, Redmond ensures the character has the required magnetism. It is to the credit of all, not least director Polly Creed, that the role doesn’t swamp the play.

Finlay Bain and Rori Hawthorn

Lady Rachel’s relationship with the newly wed Isabel could be elaborated on. It’s another strong performance – from Rori Hawthorn – but I wonder if the young woman is too naïve – and her growing affection for the island a little pat? The character is fuller when it comes to her relationship with her husband, the missionary Aneas, a role that benefits from a final strong performance, this time from Finlay Bain. The “rigid piety” of the aspiring churchman is offset by a convincing sense of religiosity and a nervousness around his young wife that Bain depicts expertly.

The play’s conclusion is wilfully frustrating. We don’t know what will happen to Lady Rachel or the couple whose marriage is tumultuous – little bodes well despite Bain and Hawthorn’s chemistry. And the minister’s conversion to Lady Rachel’s cause is so quick that it seems clumsy. This trip to this island feels rushed, but it is still a journey worth making.

Until 14 May 2022


Photos by Carla Joy Evans

“Bacon” at the Finborough Theatre

Teen dramas are two a penny. Young lives have plenty of problems, ample angst and content that, as the saying goes, is relatable. A playwright needs to up to the ante with this subject matter. And that’s exactly what Sophie Swithinbank does with her powerful and smart script.

Swithinbank takes us on a journey with her characters Mark and Darren that is carefully plotted. The writing, full of strong yet understated imagery, is admirable. But praise does come with spoilers…


I’ll admit I was fooled at first. The odd friendship with clean-cut new boy Mark and his rough friend Darren has charm and effective (if predictable) humour. There are laughs about the aloofness of one and the ignorant swagger of the other. It seems that Swithinbank will treat their very different problems equally.

In a bold move, the tone of Bacon changes quickly. The teens’ burgeoning relationship, told in flashbacks, reveals not the romance Mark wants but trauma. The play becomes disturbing as the relationship becomes emotionally and physically damaging.

Think of a topic that gets a trigger warning and it’s here: suicidal ideation, self-harm, domestic and sexual abuse. Could  some have been avoided and others given more time? But there’s no doubt the cumulative effect is dramatic. Some scenes are difficult to watch as Swithinbank explores how lost and lonely these young men are. It’s depressing how incapable they are of understanding, let alone expressing, feelings.


The production rises to the challenge of Swithinbank’s ambition. Matthew Iliffe’s direction is faultless, flipping between relaxed and tense moments. The design by Natalie Johnson consists of a simple see-saw used to great effect: reminding us we are watching children and reflecting instability. Further praise goes to top-notch lighting and sound design (Ryan Joseph Stafford and Mwen) each used dramatically at key moments without being distracting.

As for the performances, two such intense and dynamic roles are gifts to actors. Both Corey Montague-Sholay and William Robinson are flawless, with have a strong command of the comedy (balancing how the audience might laugh at, rather than with, the characters). Montague-Sholay brings out Mark’s charm, Robinson does the same with Darren’s vulnerability, ensuring remarkable sympathy. When violence arrives, we see the characters sharing shock and pain. Strong performances and a daring play make this an easy one to recommend.

Until 26 March 2022


Photos by Ali Wright

“Playfight” from the Finborough Theatre

Julia Grogan’s provocative new drama is the exciting winner of the ETPEP Prize and has been given an online rehearsed reading that downright demands a full production soon. A startlingly bold coming-of-age story with very serious concerns (and extremely frank content), Playfight comes close to a jeremiad and must be any parents’ nightmare.

The play’s three school friends talk bluntly about sex, death, love and religion. There’s humour of a kind here, although deadpan responses are relied on too much. First loves and a deep desire to work out what is “normal” prove touching. And it’s never in doubt that the characters of Kiera, Zainab and Lucy are “full of promise”. That potential is a fact that makes the play extremly depressing.

As well as orgasms and excitement about the future, it is the issues Grogan highlights that dominate. And these are truly shocking. Alongside teenage troubles with faith and sexuality (we expect that, right?) relationships to sex are seriously skewed. The acceptance of hard-core pornography and violence is disturbing. “Shame, blame and guilt” don’t just belong to Lucy’s church. Self-harming, homophobia and alcoholic parents seem almost tacked on as a grim backdrop to everyday life – it is physical violence that destroys all three young lives.

The performers – Robyn Cara, Hannah Millward and Helen Monks – work wonders with their character’s emotional ups and downs. There’s no lack of drama, so the generally underplayed tone and tight control shown in Blanche McIntyre’s direction are essential. Extra credit, of course, comes from the fact that the performers are working in isolation. Even though the piece has plenty of scenes that are phone calls, it’s impossible not to imagine how much more effective it would be – let’s hope will be – on a stage.

Playfight isn’t perfect. A central motif of an oak tree is over-burdened metaphorically and an attempt at basing some metaphysical speculation around its age fails to convince (although I’d love to see what a set designer could add). The much-discussed small-town setting is too vague, so what impact this might have had on the characters gets lost. The powerful energy in the play escalates with such rapidity that conclusion lacks control. But maybe that was the intention? Grogan’s work left me uncomfortably breathless and a play this urgent, aiming to spark so much debate, deserves a wide audience.

Until 8 April 2021


“Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels” from the Finborough Theatre

Presented daily throughout February, Athena Stevens’ play is now available to watch online in its entirety. And watch it you should. What’s exciting about the project are its bite-sized episodes, impossible in a theatre, that are carefully crafted to grow and build. So, watch slowly and take your time.

‘1’ is young woman in a relationship with an older man and ‘A’ is his long-standing female friend. It’s the dynamics between the two women that fascinate. The length of the project means that their relationship can be explored in detail. As thoughts and motives fluctuate, Stevens keeps us questioning her characters’ self-knowledge – what they really think of themselves, of each other and whether they might be complicit in the unhealthy relationships going on here.

This is a triangle of love and friendship where we only hear from two participants. The man they discuss is a vivid character. But Stevens escapes from many clichés by making the show a two-hander. Maybe it’s a little too easy to dislike the guy? And so quickly! But the gaslighting of both women is effectively oppressive and increasingly disturbing. As the show develops, Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels is tough going – and that’s a compliment.

Late Night Staring At High Res Pixels
Evelyn Lockley

The meaty roles are gifts to actors, and director Lily McLeish – despite working under lockdown conditions – helps the performers to shine. Stevens takes the role of ‘A’ and gives a suitably confident depiction of a woman who’s easy to admire. Evelyn Lockley gives a powerful performance as ‘1’, skilfully dealing with the questions of fragility and how needy or demanding (those are the accusations!) she might actually be.

The power of the characters possibly detracts from broader issues the show hopes to raise. Might they involve us in particulars a little too much? Stevens spends less time on a drama of a photograph ‘1’ sends of herself topless than might be expected. Questions about how the picture might be abusive are rushed towards the end of the series. But the impact of a man who cannot (will not?) see women as equals is stirring.

Having helped during lockdown with releases of previous shows such as Joan Clegg and It is Easy to be Dead, The Finborough Theatre will release new work online during 2021. Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels is a strong start. Unlike many a theatre project, it uses the online format and the way we view online to its advantage. Watch in small doses and its efficacy is sure to impress.

Until 1 April 2021


“I Wish To Die Singing” from the Finborough Theatre

The November online offering from Neil McPherson’s venue is his own piece about the Armenian Genocide. With the help of director Tommo Fowler, the theatre becomes a classroom and a place of campaigning as the audience is given a history lesson and left with a call to action.

The past first. McPherson’s use of eyewitness reports to events in Turkey in 1915 is skilled, showing just enough of life before the atrocities. Suggesting a flavour of the rich Armenian culture, the voices of children are balanced with those of adult survivors looking back.

The best deliveries come from Bevan Celestine, Tamar Karabetyan and Kate Binchy (especially strong as a missionary) who each bring a tear to the eye more than once. It should be stressed that much of what we hear is stomach-churning. Quite rightly, McPherson does not shy away from detailing the swift, sudden massacres or the “hopeless exile” of a “relocation” Armenians were forced to make – walking into the desert to their deaths.

McPherson and Fowler understand context is especially important when dealing with a subject matter less well known than it should be. Their solution is highly effective: the whole show is led by Jilly Bond, who plays an approachable narrator capably filling in details.

As for the history, I Wish To Die Singing aims to be more than a lecture in a theatre. Debate about the definition of a genocide leads to roll call of countries that recognise what happened and those that refute facts. Adding commentary up to the date of recording, including insulting tweets the theatre received, brings an immediacy to the show that can still be sensed.

Until 31 December 2020


Photo by Doug Mackie

“Joan Clegg” from the Finborough Theatre

Highlighting its strong reputation for rediscovering classic plays, this lockdown offering from Neil McPherson’s treasured venue had not been performed in London since 1944 when it was revived last year. Expert director David Gilmore shows us what we’ve been missing with a production of the highest quality.

It’s easy to see St. John Ervine’s 1913 piece as an English version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The honesty about an unhappy marriage must have been just as shocking to Edwardian audiences as the Norwegian’s work. The frustrated, intelligent and independent Joan is a nice match for Ibsen’s Nora. And Joan is a similarly great role for an actress – here, Alix Dunmore embraces the opportunity to her credit, steely and dignified with a melancholy regret sustained throughout.

Ervine’s writing is solid. If the plot plods and there are some laughs at the outdated sexual politics, Joan Clegg is a robust piece. The inspiration of Ibsen runs deep – an attention to detail that naturalism insists on means the play stands on its own, rooted in a particular time and place. Gilmore does well to nurture these culturally specific touches, supported by performances from Victoria Lennox and Sidney Livingstone, as the mother-in-law and the husband’s manager. A sense of social constraints is strong but never over-stated.

As for that “absolute rotter” of a husband, Henry, that he isn’t a total turn-off is more to the credit of Brian Martin’s performance than the writing. Henry’s stubborn arrogance as his lies – and Joan – catch him out provides drama, despite being predictable. With Henry around it’s too obvious that Joan’s cry of “I demand as much as I give” isn’t going to be heeded. Her independence is a bit too much of a relief for a modern audience. But hearing about Joan’s life, over a century later, is powerful and stylish thanks to fine work from Gilmore and Dunmore.

Until 5 August 2020


Photo by Doug Mackie

“It Is Easy To Be Dead” from the Finborough Theatre

One of the smallest venues in London – surely in desperate need of the donations requested while making this production available online – the Finborough’s prestigious reputation is lived up to in artistic director Neil McPherson’s play. Taking the life of World War I soldier Charles Hamilton Sorley, it makes appropriate viewing during the weekend of VE day: a moving tribute to lives lost in any war and – in particular –to one admirably independent, and therefore challenging, young man.

First seen in 2016 and justly receiving critical acclaim, including a nomination for an Olivier Award, McPherson’s play mingles the poetry and letters of his subject confidently, and director Max Key complements his careful editing. The same expert touch comes with the show’s music, directed by Elizabeth Rossiter, who performs on piano accompanying tenor Hugh Benson.

McPherson’s structuring of the play could serve as a lesson to many. Time is taken for us to get to know the subject, one so full of life before his death at the age of 20. When the war comes it is all the more powerful and Key deals well with battle scenes that contain only one man. The projections used throughout the show are frequently lost in this recording, but it is easy to imagine the mounting power as we see the faces and fates of so many of the people mentioned.

It is Easy to be Dead at the Finborough Theatre
Jenny Lee and Tom Marshall

There’s a strong sense of period, which never feels forced, shown at its best with the acting of Jenny Lee and Tom Marshall, as Sorley’s parents. Both give beautiful, restrained, performances of roles well filled out. The brief scene of their final goodbye to Charles is brilliant. And debates over whether to publish another “dead public school boy” show the cool intelligence their son inherited. Gratitude that they, and subsequently McPherson with his play, pursued their commemorative project grows.

It Is Easy To Be Dead is a major role for Alexander Knox as Sorley – its success rests on his shoulders. Winning from the start with a schoolboy wish to leave “custom on the shelf”, humour and touches of romance are all conveyed, along with plenty of additional characters. But Knox’s real skill is allowing the true star to be the play’s subject.

Sorley’s words draw us into the action and make us care for him enormously, but it is his common sense – over sentiment and even patriotism – that really impresses. Calling the conflict the “joke of the century”, claiming that of 12 million combatants only 12 really want to fight, his fury against “deliberate hypocrisy” (and critique of Rupert Brooke) are refreshing and much needed. As a final tribute, Knox’s readings of Sorley’s poems do them justice – surely a poet could wish no finer tribute.

Available until 7 July 2020


Photos by Scott Rylander