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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Jane Clegg
finboroughtheatre.co.uk and YouTube   Summer 2020

The 60-seat (in a squeeze) above-a-pub Finborough Theatre is one of London's most adventurous and consistently high-quality fringe venues. Its producing teams have a particular penchant for rediscovering neglected plays from the early Twentieth Century.

St John Ervine's 1913 drama Jane Clegg, staged at the Finborough in 2019, may not be a great play, but it is a strong one, with a lot that is fascinating to a Twenty-First Century audience.

Ervine's title character is the wife of a gambling, philandering and generally irresponsible travelling salesman. She has inherited a little money of her own at just the time that he desperately needs some, and when she insists on holding on to her savings to provide a start for their children, he resorts to embezzling from his employer.

The bulk of the play is devoted to her gradual discovery of his crime and his other failings, and to her decisions of how to deal with them.

I'll try not to give away too much except to say that the shadow of Ibsen's Doll's House hangs heavily over this play, right down to the final offstage sound effect, though with enough original twists (like just who that door closes behind) to hold our interest.

But at its core is a Jane who, like Nora, realizes that all her assumptions about the nature and dynamic of her marriage were wrong and bravely adjusts to the reality.

Jane is not a feminist of the form a contemporary audience would have recognised, but simply a woman of great personal character strength and the courage to rely on her own sense of what is right.

The play might actually have been more effective as drama if Jane were not presented as fully powerful and confident in her power from the start, but allowed to discover her potential as she went along, like Ibsen's Nora.

And that cavil is emblematic of a melodramatic black-and-white vision that keeps Ervine's play from greatness. Not just Jane, but all the characters are introduced as fully developed, and never really change.

The husband Henry is a self-indulgent weakling, his mother is a whining and demanding parasite, the bookie to whom Henry owes money is a cliché. And even Jane's children are given a single note each to play.

Much to the credit of director David Gilmore, he does not try to hide or fight these simple characterisations, but embraces them as central to the play's vocabulary.

So if Alix Dunmore as Jane is sometimes a little too Julie Andrews stiff-backed and pure, her performance grows during the play just by not wavering.

Brian Martin's Henry is a pathetic little man even when he attempts to bluster, but it is a fully committed performance that never falls over into self-parody. Maev Alexander (mother), Matthew Sim (bookie) and Sidney Livingstone (discoverer of the embezzlement) provide generous support.

The video recording was clearly made for the theatre's archives rather than broadcast, but the skilful use of two cameras captures the live theatre experience well.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Jane Clegg 2020