The Lady's Not For Burning
Finborough Theatre Spring 2007
For a brief period around 1950 there was a flurry of plays in verse, and some commentators and critics actually thought the future of the British theatre lay in poetic drama.
The movement, if that's what it was, died out quickly, leaving us with only the rare revival of T. S. Eliot or Christopher Fry as a reminder of what might have been.
Fry's Lady is arguably the best of that period, and so the chance to see it, even in a modest above-a-pub fringe production, is welcome.
It's a witty Renaissance romance built on themes of honour, love and the value of life, but its real subject is language - the love the playwright, the characters and presumably the audience have for lush, over-the-top verbiage for its own sake.
The story is of an ex-soldier who, having seen the worst of life, comes to a small town demanding to be hanged for any crime they choose to accuse him of.
His appearance is particularly inconvenient for the harried mayor, who is coping with a mob calling for the burning of a local witch and with his two nephews fighting over a former nun who has just come onto the marriage market.
I'm not giving anything away when I say that the soldier and the supposed witch fall in love, putting paid to his determination to die, and that the ex-nun makes her own decision who to wed - it is, after all, a romance.
And that part of the play - the basic story with its rom com ironies and inevitabilities - comes across nicely in this production. What is somewhat less successful is the company's handling of the poetry.
Director Walter Sutcliffe has encouraged or allowed his actors to recite rather than speak naturally, and to shout more often than the small room welcomes, which means that too many of the words blend into gabble and contentless music.
So much of what Fry has to say about Life, the Universe and Everything is lost, along with much of the wit and eloquence with which he says it.
Grant Gillespie captures the would-be hangee's anger and frustration more successfully than the romantic charm that would attract the lady, and Gemma Larke isn't able to bring the putative witch to sufficient life to make her seem the heaven-sent match for him.
More successful are the secondary comic characters with less of a philosophical burden to bear, notably Andrew Macbean as the copeless mayor and Gay Soper as the grande dame who measures everyone and everything in terms of the social niceties.
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Review of The Lady's Not For Burning - Finborough Theatre 2007