Finborough Theatre, London – until 31 August 2019
A YOUTHFUL HALLELUJAH… Another fascinating London premiere for Two’s Company and the Finborough, buried for nearly half a century after one brief 1970 tour.
As Philip King’s last play opens, a mother has died leaving a dutiful grieving son aged 19, his long-alienated father and an unseen but strongly evoked old-fashioned Salvationist community. The lad David decides, to general consternation, to stay in the rented house and perhaps take a lodger. The one he accepts, to the horror of his maternal mentor Major Webber, is Bess the barmaid from the Red Lion. The problem this will cause is not quite the obvious one: the quartet work through a counterpoint of innocence and experience, old resentments, father-son rivalry, religious devotion and simple friendship.
David is young Sebastian Calver, and it is always a pleasure to see a professional debut which not only shines in itself but reminds us that belonging to a 21st-century, loose-limbed-liberal post-Christian generation doesn’t stop a new actor from empathising and utterly containing a character from another age. Calver emerges from the sophistication of London’s E15 Acting School to become with utter commitment a painfully shy, devout Salvationist in bygone smalltown Lancashire.
Here’s a boy grieving his mother, living without rebellion in the morally straitened world of the local Citadel and alienated from the briskly caddish father who ran off years before with a Doris. Calver beautifully balances David’s damaged immaturity and intermittent emotional panics with a sweetness – and a struggling stubbornness – which show the man he might become. Especially if, like soft old me, you insist on interpreting the volcanic last scene as possibly redemptive…
It’s a fine performance. So are the others: Patience Tomlinson as Major Webber, ruthlessly pious, a neat foldaway face of certainty beneath her neat bonnet . In one of her departures from the house she deploys pursed lips and a kindly inclination of the head that indicate she will pray for its inmates with quite terrifying vigour. John Sackville, beaky and brisk and sleazily sexy, is the father; and there’s a really lovely, explosively life-affirming performance from Mia Austen as Bess.
In one fine scene David, trapped in his hunched grief and innocently pre-sexual need for friendship, first flinches at her bantering gaiety and then pleads with her to stay and bring some shine into his daily life. That this will be disgraceful to the Salvationists, whose band echoes briefly between scenes, is obvious, but King is not sending them up. Tomlinson’s Major is far from dislikeable, and she worries about the boy and sees right through the awful father. Whose cruelty – towards Bess and even more to his son – becomes manifest in possibly the only diabolical plot in the theatrical canon to involve a tin of Three Nuns tobacco.
Oh, and Calver plays the cornet, as a good Salvationist apprentice should. Badly at first, but in a final scene very satisfyingly. Tricia Thorne’s production, and Alex Marker’s intimate front-room set, build a past world without caricature and with understanding, reminding us that there was a time-lag when the 1960’s were just starting to catch up on postwar primness. It’s the world of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, but far gentler, exploring with accurate, forensic affection the boundaries between sacred and profane love, the “buttercups-and-daisies” innocence of youth and the brutalities of its elders. It draws you in all the way: what more do you want?
boxoffice finboroughtheatre.co.uk to 31 August .