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:
The Unnatural Tragedy
White Bear Theatre
Reviewed – 5th July 2018
“Spanning sobriety, wit, tension and fatality, this ‘Unnatural Tragedy’ entertains the mind and the heart.”
In the first performance since it was written 360 years ago, ‘The Unnatural Tragedy’ plunges straight into the 21st century with a compelling production which reveals the work of a female writer who was years ahead of her time. Prolific in quantity and scope, Margaret Cavendish, sometimes nicknamed Mad Madge due to her ‘outlandish’ ideas and opinions, wrote everything from plays and poetry to philosophy and science. In this, one of fourteen plays, three storylines run parallel, ostensibly separate though related in themes, predominantly the concept of nature. The main plot tells of Frere’s obsessive sexual attraction for his married sister, Soeur, when he returns after many years away at university, and his attempt to seduce her. Secondly, and not dissimilar to a Greek chorus, are scenes of the ‘sociable virgins’ – modernised as teenage schoolgirls – and their discussions on women’s values and roles, marriage, classical poetry and history. A third tale is that of rich and irascible Malateste who berates his gentle wife, Madame Bonit. When she dies he finds a new wife among the sociable virgins and the tables are turned.
Director, Graham Watts, skilfully interlocks the three scenarios, with slick pacing and dramatic balance, engaging the audience in each story. The open, two-sided stage area with a simple yet effective set design (Alys Whitehead) allows the numerous entrances and exits to flow and the lighting (Paola Capuano) and sound (Matthew Iles) add colour and detail.
Watts uses the disjointed nature of short interjecting scenes to build up tension and anticipation as the characters and situations develop. Jack Ayres and Alice Welby give strong, nuanced portrayals as the brother and sister. Frere’s repeated advances become more intense and his frustration grows frenzied; Soeur becomes trapped by his arguments, trying to convince him of his sinful thoughts as he rationalises his incestuous desires by explaining what he perceives as ‘natural’. The rise and fall of Malateste’s (Alan Booty) life is clearly drawn with a touching performance by Alison Mead as Madame Bonit who preserves her integrity in spite of her husband’s insults, and the domineering second wife, played by Madeleine Hutchins. Mademoiselle Amor, (Phebe Alys), is steadily crushed by unrequited love for Frere until, in a heartfelt moment of desperation, she collapses into the comfort of her father’s (James Sanderson) arms. Meanwhile, the sociable virgins, (including Eleanor Nawal and Lily Donovan), debate and deliberate with spirit and petulance, testing the patience of their tutor (Norma Dixit).
The striking feature of this play is its relevance today, stressing Cavendish’s radical thinking in creating voluble women characters who address conventional attitudes to matrimony, love and nature. Accomplished acting all round, with several of the cast making debut appearances, and sensitive, intelligent direction bring it alive with nuance and fluidity, tying together the threads of narrative, comment and emotions. Spanning sobriety, wit, tension and fatality, this ‘Unnatural Tragedy’ entertains the mind and the heart.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Alys Whitehead
The Unnatural Tragedy
White Bear Theatre until 21st July
Previously reviewed at this venue