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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.

Masks And Faces
Finborough Theatre  Summer 2021

A warm and witty comedy with just the right touch of sentimentality, this delightful rediscovery comes from a tiny London fringe theatre that specializes in rediscovering lost gems.

The 1852 play by Charles Reade and Tom Taylor invents a fictional story about the actual 18th century actress Peg Woffington. (A skilled comedienne and fabled beauty, Woffington had achieved by the next century an image not too different from the 21st Century's idea of Jane Russell or Marilyn Monroe.)

The play watches Peg foil a town rake confident he can make her his mistress, gently let down an infatuated fan and thereby save his marriage, and still have time and goodness of heart left over to help an impoverished writer.

There is thus opportunity in the play for social satire, light farce and honest sentiment, and while the shifts in tone are sometimes abrupt, the play manages to absorb them all in a unified and entertaining whole.

This online production is a bit hit-and-miss, but it does succeed in capturing and presenting the play's warm charm.

This is another in the new art form of Zoom Theatre, with the actors each in their own homes, performing for their computer cameras, and in one key way this is the most successful example of the genre I've seen.

Director Matthew Iliffe has guided his cast to speak and react to each other even though they are actually playing directly to a camera. So, even though we never see more than one person at a time, we do get the illusion of them being in the same room and inhabiting the same reality something very few previous Zoom productions have achieved.

And since at least the more sentimental parts of the play build on a sense of the characters connecting with each other, this technical achievement richly enhances the warm good humour.

But director Iliffe is considerably less successful in another area, and blame for the production's biggest weakness must be laid at his feet.

He does not seem to have realized that a production built entirely on extreme close-ups requires under- rather than over-acting, and he has clearly ordered every one of his actors to play far too big and externally for the medium.

While it may not be literally true that everyone is constantly mugging and waving their arms about (Some are), that is the impression the viewer is likely to get, so in-your-face is the universal acting style.

Not even the strongest actors in the company are completely free of this flaw, though Amy McAllister (Peg), Matthew Ashforde (poor writer) and Sophie Melville (country wife) are most able to snatch moments of behaving like real human beings out of the general over-the-top-ness.

(Footnote: as a demonstration of their support, courage and folly, real-life theatre critics Fiona Mountford and Charles Billington play the small roles of two wannabe critics, and escape more-or-less unscathed.)

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Masks And Faces - Finborough Theatre Online 2021