Reviewed – 29th November 2018
“The dialogue is light and witty and handled skilfully by the cast, whilst the story has enough twists to keep the audience invested”
Jeannie is the new production at Finborough Theatre – except it isn’t new at all, because Aimée Stuart’s play about a humble Scotswoman experiencing life for the first time premiered almost eighty years ago, in February 1940. Sadly, Stuart’s numerous plays, books and screenplays remain forgotten, despite her five decades worth of output. This revival succeeds, not only in celebrating her work, but in creating a refined production of her sweet and enchanting play.
Jeannie McLean has devoted her whole life to her parents, first as her mother’s companion, then as her widowed father’s carer. When she receives an inheritance of £200, she decides to leave the small Scottish town of her birth and travel to Vienna, home of her favourite song – the Blue Danube Waltz – and undiscovered possibilities. But, whilst Jeannie might be able to hold her own, independence is not as easy as it seems.
Despite its old-fashioned aura, Jeannie feels more like a classic Hollywood movie than a forgotten relic. The dialogue is light and witty and handled skilfully by the cast, whilst the story has enough twists to keep the audience invested. At its heart, it is a story about a woman who continually triumphs over adversity. Jeannie may be naïve, but she is strong-willed, dignified, and does not rely on others. When Stanley Smith, an inventor who she meets on her way to Vienna, offers to buy her dinner, she insists on paying her share. When he asks why she is single, she replies that it’s because men ‘have bad taste’. Jeannie can easily stand shoulder to shoulder, not only with her male companions, but with the quintessential strong female characters of the era. Now, Voyager’s Charlotte Vale could have learnt a thing or two from Jeannie McLean.
The show benefits from an excellent cast. Mairi Hawthorn brings Jeannie to life with subtly and humour: her nuanced performance reveals Jeannie’s hidden depths and endears her to the audience from the very beginning. Her chemistry with Matthew Mellalieu (whose down-to-earth Stanley Smith perfectly balances our Jeannie’s innocence) ensures that their scenes together are the most enjoyable of the show. Kim Durham also stands out in his brief yet memorable performance as Jeannie’s curmudgeonly father. In addition to their acting duties, the cast also have to deal with a number of set changes. These are handled well, though designer James Helps’ attention to detail can make them a little overlong, and can pull us out of the world that the cast have worked so hard to create. That being said, the set pieces are impressive and help transform the small, plain space of the Finborough beyond recognition.
Whilst not a story that will break new ground, Jeannie is witty and spirited, with a kind of nostalgic charm that makes it an ideal form of escapism.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by Ali Wright
Finborough Theatre until 22nd December
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: