Tag Archives: Neil McPherson

“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

“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

“Saturn Returns” at the Finborough Theatre

Saturn is the god of the harvest, associated with celebration and also time. In Noah Haidle’s Saturn Returns we meet Gustin Novak at three stages of his life, each focusing on the moment of his greatest happiness – a time he sees as a golden age that he paradoxically lives to regret.

Novak is played by three actors. Richard Evans performs the character in his old age. Irascible and with a wry sense of humour, he is so desperately lonely that he can’t even take advantage of a free airline ticket to anywhere in the world.

He is joined on stage by his middle-aged self, played by Nicholas Gecks, who brings a frightening intensity to a man bereaved long ago, but still in deep mourning. Christopher Harper plays Novak when young, passionately in love and with his future before him.

All three interact with each other under strong direction from Adam Lenson. They argue amongst themselves and waltz around the stage as they re-enact the past, returning to “the beginning of unforgetting” when tragedy entered Novak’s life. This dance to the music of time is often funny and frequently moving.

This trio achieves a remarkable sense of common identity, but it is Lisa Caruccio Came who just manages to steal the show. She plays Novak’s nurse, his daughter and his wife in different scenes and not only establishes the connections between the characters, but also manages to distinguish them with great historical intelligence.

And this drama has two other stars. Noah Haidle writes with a wonderfully light and poetic touch. This play is bleak but with an underlying tenderness so evocative it borders on the sentimental and is sure to resonate emotionally. A much-lauded writer from the States, it is to the The Finborough’s credit that Haidle receives his UK debut here. Praise must go to artistic director Neil McPherson for once again sharing with us his far-sighted talent spotting.

Until 27 November 2010


Photo by Dan Chippendale

Written 8 November 2010 for The London Magazine