The Finborough Theatre, an admirably programmed studio space above the Finborough (Arms) pub in Earl’s Court, continues to dust off forgotten gems from theatrical obscurity, resurrecting playwrights who haven’t been heard of much outside academia for generations.
Their latest production is Ours, by the Victorian dramatist T.W Robertson, who was a pioneer of naturalism in the theatre (and partly responsible for genuinely realistic domestic sets and stage design coming into fashion). He also liked snappy one word titles judging by several of his other works (Caste, Play, School, Birth, Progress, Society), which were admired by George Bernard Shaw, who called his oeuvre ‘epoch making’. I can see why Robertson’s work was considered so important, he moves away from formulaic romps, and with gentle wit and great observation represents certain strands of mid Victorian life in a very watchable and even informative way.
Ours was premiered in 1866, but events occur over a decade before that, just prior to and during the Crimean War (1854-56). It concerns an upper class couple, the Shendryn’s, and their circle (extending to more than just upper class niceties), firstly in their country estate, then in their London home, and finally in a hut in the Crimea (where the men are now fighting). Lady Shendryn and Sir Alexander are not the picture of marital happiness at the start of the play, their friend Chalcot has too much money and too little to do, Lady Shendryn’s companion Mary is thoroughly fed up with her lot, her friend Blanche is in love with an unsuitably poor man whilst being courted by a wealthy Russian Prince on the eve of war with Russia (though that’s not considered to be a major obstacle). Got all that? It’s actually an effective comedy, highlighting the age old conflict of the sexes and giving us some brittle, witty dialogue along the way. It is also representative of its time, particularly looking at the position of women in society and the shadow of war and patriotism, although this is no deep meditation on sex or conflict. The premise of the play becomes less believable as the story moves to a climax, particularly when the women turn up unannounced at the Crimean front as war tourists (apparently women did go to visit their upper class husbands and view skirmishes), the lack of the horror of war and the gallant behaviour of the enemy are also slightly suspect, but it never becomes melodrama and gives us a dramatically satisfying ending.
It’s an enjoyable evening, though by no means radical or unpredictable, but where else would you see a jam roly-poly pudding being made onstage or a Russian Prince join his captors for a mutton dinner? It’s also nice to see a play from this mid Victorian period, with something akin to realistic dialogue. Direction by Phoebe Barran well utilises the small in the round space, with an attractive and surprisingly detailed set by Anna Bliss-Scully. Acting is generally good, with Robert Irons as the overly rich Chalcot and Emilie Patry as the disgruntled ladies companion (who eventually get engaged), particularly good.
I think I’ll leave the last word to a bemused and somewhat distressed American lady, whom I heard saying to her equally baffled, but clearly expert bluffer husband during the interval, ‘is this before or after Jane Austen?’