SALT-WATER MOON at the Finborough Theatre
“A slow burner, but one that burns bright”
It is a slow, and sometimes difficult journey, to discover what “Salt-Water Moon’ is really about. But do not let that put you off. In this context, ‘slow’ is synonymous with ‘gently absorbing’ while ‘difficult’ can be paraphrased to mean ‘thoughtful’ or ‘intelligently imaginative’. The ambiguity is deliberate as the play may not be to everybody’s taste, but it kicks off 2023 with a blast of fresh air that wouldn’t be out of place on the ragged Newfoundland coast that is the setting for this engaging two-hander.
Set in the front porch of a coastal summer house in 1926, “Salt-Water Moon” is essentially a love story. Mary Snow (Bryony Miller) is star gazing through an eyeglass. Mim Houghton’s simple, festooned design evokes the starry, starry night, complemented by Neill Brinkworth’s lighting: a palette of blue and gray. It is not entirely clear whether Mary is expecting it, but a lilting voice – familiar to her – is heard in the distance, followed by the appearance of Jacob Mercer (Joseph Potter), Snow’s former sweetheart who abruptly left a year before to try his luck in Toronto. Mary initially resolves to remain true to her current fiancé, Jerome McKenzie, rightly betraying the hurt caused by Jacob’s desertion.
Potter plays Jacob with a permanent, cocksure grin that borders on arrogance: an arrogance that is belied by an assured, commanding and loveable performance. Potter’s natural charisma allows us to forgive the character’s sometimes dated sentiments and sentimentality. Equally, Miller rescues her character from the downtrodden path she could have taken, and we get a real sense that, whoever wins, she is quite capable of giving as good as she gets. There is a deep sense of rivalry between Mary’s unseen fiancé and Jacob, the exposition of which cleverly places the piece in the context of the first world war. Without lecturing us, the emotional and traumatic fallout that the Newfoundlanders suffered is poignantly understated, yet vividly described through David French’s dialogue.
The dialogue drives the play which, on paper, is a challenging script. Potter and Miller certainly rise to the challenge, tackling the dynamics (and the accents) with ease and skilfully playing with French’s words to strike the right levels of emotion. A talented duo, they possess the art of listening to each other and reacting. It is an intuitive and astute performance, full of realism. Peter Kavanagh directs with the same authenticity – subtle yet magical. There is a loving attention to detail that gives us the larger picture, just as the occasional silences reinforce the narrative.
Although the play ends with an unresolved outcome, we are left in little doubt as to the answer to the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ question. Nevertheless, we do leave the theatre wanting to know what happens next. This makes sense, as “Salt-Water Moon” is the third play in a quartet that features the two protagonists. Yet it has the fullness of a stand-alone piece of writing that explores the nature of love, betrayal, patriotism, loss, forgiveness and loyalty. It revisits a bygone age and harks back to a former and sometimes forgotten spirit of theatre; quietly asserting its relevance. A slow burner, but one that burns bright.
Reviewed on 5th January 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Lucy Hayes
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Not Quite Jerusalem
Reviewed – 6th March 2020
“Joe McArdle and Ronnie Yorke provide a terrific double act as the loud-mouthed Dave and Pete, proving the traditional loutish view of the English abroad”
Forty years ago the ground-breaking Finborough Theatre opened its doors for the first time. To celebrate its anniversary it presents the first new UK production in 40 years of Paul Kember’s award-winning 1980 comedy-drama “Not Quite Jerusalem.”
First seen at the Royal Court the play has some staying power, not least because it proves that nothing changes: the shock is that it could have been written yesterday.
Four young people escape a divided England and lives they would rather forget for an Israeli kibbutz, which they think will be a fun working holiday with sun, sex and sightseeing. In reality they upset their hosts, alienate their fellow kibbutzniks and suffer hard labour in the blistering heat.
On the surface the play is a perfectly respectable comedy drama with a romantic interest, comic characters and a taste of what was, for many young people of the time, an exciting and exotic way of taking time out discovering the world.
Taking that side alone it is true that the piece feels a little dated. But what director Peter Kavanagh and the six-strong cast achieve is to tease out the shadowy heart of the work, which reflects on the sensibilities of life in England’s green and pleasant land and to glimpse ourselves as others see us in an uncomfortable culture clash.
The four youngsters couldn’t be more different: there’s Mike, the laid back Cambridge student who simply walked out of his course and out of contact with his parents; Carrie, the nervous aspiring artist with issues; Dave, the vulgar northerner; and Essex lad Pete, constantly keen to check out the local talent. Also at hand are the kibbutz manager Ami and a fiery and plain-speaking Israeli girl Gila.
Kember doesn’t make it easy to like any of these characters and none of them is particularly well-drawn apart from Mike. So it is to the credit of the performers that they manage to drag the play away from its regular big speeches and navel-gazing to present genuine people in an authentic setting with all too real problems.
Ryan Whittle’s languid Mike starts out by sharing the laziness of the other Brits, but we gain insight into his passions and patriotism. He is well-balanced by the most interesting character, Ailsa Joy’s spirited Gila, and the careful contrast of their performances make their tentative romance all the more credible as both so fiercely represent their cultures and homelands.
Joe McArdle and Ronnie Yorke provide a terrific double act as the loud-mouthed Dave and Pete, proving the traditional loutish view of the English abroad. Their version of “Underneath the Arches,” as part of an entertainment where all the kibbutzniks have to perform something that represents their country, is a comic delight with an ending that says all there is to say about how disgruntled and browbeaten Englanders see their identity.
Miranda Braun does well with the slightly-written Carrie, the undeserving butt of so many of Dave and Pete’s remarks, though it’s hard to deal with the character’s inconsistency from one scene to the next. Russell Bentley holds things nicely together as a calm Ami.
The staging has seating on three sides which gives a suitably claustrophobic feel to the kibbutz set (Ceci Calf) and there are some beautiful moments in the lighting (Ryan Stafford), particularly when the Middle Eastern sun beams life, light and promise through the wooden slats.
“Not Quite Jerusalem” has not quite survived the test of time, but still manages to come across thanks to this production as a disturbing and challenging state of the nation commentary.
Reviewed by David Guest
Photography by Kirsten McTernan
Not Quite Jerusalem
Finborough Theatre until 28th March
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: