Southwark Playhouse, 10th July
When you enter the auditorium, you see first a multitude of floating candles in the darkness above the stage. On the stage itself you see the broken railing of a seaside promenade through a veil of smoke, and below the stage, a shallow pool filled with water which burning tealights drift across. A distant sound of old music winds through the room. The effect is otherworldly. It is a simplistic and beautiful set for a simple and beautiful play.
Lizzie Finn is an Irish dancer working in the music halls of Weston-super-Mare. Alongside her best friend and dance partner Jelly Jane she’s made herself an independent woman and feels no shame about her profession. Robert Gibson, returning from the Boer War after losing his three brothers, is enchanted by Lizzie when he meets her on the promenade, but attacks her with his coat in an attempt to protect her modesty when he sees her in the music hall. Despite their rocky beginnings, Lizzie is soon charmed by the bumbling, well-meaning Robert, and the two marry and return to their native Ireland.
The play is without any major downfall or conflict. Even an initial clash with Robert’s mother – ‘Lady Gibson’ as she reminds her new daughter-in-law – has no climax but tapers off to a reluctant affection. But I’m not complaining. There is tension and tragedy upon the Gibsons’ return to Ireland, particularly concerning the locals’ perception of Lizzie’s former occupation, but Lizzie has too much of a no-nonsense attitude to be ruffled by it. In the end, this is a story of two good, kind people finding each other and being happy. And what’s wrong with that? Critics have picked on the play’s essential lack of conflict but it was a relief to sit in a theatre and have a smile constantly on my lips and a good laugh every now and then (especially after Macbeth: Leila and Ben – A Bloody History).
Sebastian Barry’s play is directed by Blanche McIntyre with a humour and understanding that engages the audience right from the first scene. Shereen Martin is wonderful as Lizzie and seems to connect with her role completely. Karen Cogan however deserves particular praise for her touching and very funny portrayal of young servant Teresa, whose eyes pop at the end of act one when she discovers her new mistress’s gold-sequined can-can knickers.
Southwark Playhouse is a beautiful theatre, nestled behind a pub near London Bridge, under the train bridge itself. The auditorium is intimate and the seating comfortable, while the atmospheric rumbling of occasional trains overhead echoing around the original brick tunnel makes for a really memorable and beautiful venue. I’d return there just to spend another evening in such a lovely location, if the quality of the plays wasn’t already enough to bring me back.
Image by Bronwen Sharp