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 The Theatreguide.London Review

John Ferguson
Finborough Theatre  May-June 2014

Written in 1915 and evidently not performed in Britain or Ireland since 1920, St. John Ervine's Ulster-set farm drama displays all the conventions, strengths and weaknesses of nineteenth-century melodrama, which means it probably felt old-fashioned even then. 

But the best nineteenth-century melodrama has real emotions beneath the clichs and real human experiences beneath the stock figures, and even 99 years later this imperfect production gives some hints of the play's potential power. 

The family farm will be lost unless a rich relative comes through with the mortgage money. The farmer is a good and pious man, trying to hang on to the belief in a benevolent God, his wife is loyal if sceptical, his daughter a strong young woman, his son a hard-working drudge. 

The evil mortgage holder has designs on the farmer's daughter, who is also being wooed by an earnest but totally wimpy local lad (If they ever did get together the play would become Hobson's Choice, with her making a man and a success out of him), all watched by the village beggar, who may not be as feeble-minded as he acts. 

In the course of the play a woman is dishonoured, a man is murdered, and an innocent person is arrested and saved only by a shock last-minute confession. 

As productions of similar melodramas have shown, this genre can still work, but only if played with full faith in and commitment to the genre – in effect, director and actors have to risk going way over the top in order to reach the right level of playing. 

Director Emma Faulkner and her cast are too tentative for too much of the play's length, leaving the clichs naked and the stock figures lifeless. 

Only at a few moments in the course of the play, and then most fully in the final scene do the characters really come alive, and then – as should happen – the situation becomes real, the emotions believable, even the writing seems less clichd, and we sense the dramatic power the whole evening could have had. 

(This may be something that will improve in the course of the run. On Press Night the actors seemed under-rehearsed and unsure of lines and timing, leaving too little energy to devote to creating and sustaining the needed reality level.) 

Ciaran McIntyre provides a quietly solid emotional core to the play as the father and Zoe Rainey finds some depth to the daughter, while David Walshe has one strong scene effectively developing the ambiguities surrounding the beggar.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - John Ferguson - Finborough Theatre 2014

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