Finborough Theatre until 22 December 2018
It has been nearly 80 years since Aimée Stuart’s enchanting and whimsical comedy, Jeannie, has been performed in London so thank god for the Finborough Theatre in staging a revival. It’s long overdue. You can’t help but fall in love with the remarkable Jeannie, due, in part to Stuart’s bold characterisation but also thanks to a winning turn by relative newcomer Mairi Hawthorn. She’s a delight.
Jeannie premiered in the West End in 1940 yet the story, about a dour, naive Scots lassie set loose with an inheritance, is years ahead of its time. It has been compared to a 1930s version of Cinderella but it’s more a modern day story about a lottery winner.
What’s the first thing any of us would do if our lives were suddenly transformed by a big win or unexpected windfall? We’d spend, spend, spend. It’s the stuff of dreams – but also nightmares. A young and unsophisticated girl, willing to see the good in everyone, is suddenly the prey of unscrupulous men. How will she separate the wheat from the chaff?
Poor Jeannie is treated like an unpaid servant by her 72-year-old, devoutly religious, misery and controlling father (a great little cameo by Kim Durham). Every day is the same, cleaning, cooking, washing sheets. Jeannie isn’t allowed out and any suggestion that she enjoys herself or has time off from looking after her dad is met with a torrent of abuse from the old bugger. There’s no chance of her finding romance and, at 28, she’s destined to be a lonely spinster. When he dies Jeannie is astonished to discover that she’s been left £200 and she is determined to make the most of it.
“I’m not to old to enjoy myself,” she defiantly tells two cousins. “It is the first time I’ve ever had any money of my own so I’m going to spend it.” Good for her.
She wants to go on a world tour to visit all the places that she has only ever been able to dream about.
First off she books passage to Vienna because she wants to hear the Blue Danube “at source”. She is astonishingly confident and self-assured for someone who has never left her dreary backwater in Scotland.
On the train over to Austria she meets a bluff, straight-talking, Yorkshire businessman who is on his way to a trade fair in Vienna to exhibit a washing machine he has invented.
Over the course of the next few days Jeannie and Stanley Smith form some sort of halting relationship.
He’s no Prince Charming – in fact he describes himself as “a bit of a rotter” when he stands up Jeannie for a date with a blonde model.
And she’s no fairy-tale princess, welcoming the attentions of an elderly, charming and aristocratic gigolo who is clearly after her cash.
The pair, both frank and down-to-earth, are lost and lonely, but see something in each other that is comforting and refreshing, even if they won’t admit it.
Jeannie is beguiling while Stanley (an outstanding and beautifully restrained performance by Matthew Mellalieu) is disarmed and entranced by her naivety.
But will the pair fall in love – are either even capable of recognising it – or will life throw so many complications in their way that they will return to their former lives without ever knowing true happiness?
Jeannie isn’t a rip-roaring, laugh-out-loud, comedy but this rediscovered gem is wonderfully written and sparkles with Hawthorn’s captivating performance as the eponymous heroine.
I loved Mellalieu’s underplayed Stanley. He’s as far removed from a romantic hero as it’s possible to be but there is a moment during the play that will melt everyone’s hearts.
There is a strong supporting cast. Patrick Pearson’s turn as rakish Count, complete with pencil moustache (very Douglas Fairbanks Jnr I thought – showing my age) is a corker and Max Alexander-Taylor runs himself ragged playing a variety of rather cheeky servants.
Director Nicolette Kay has done a splendid job with the story but I could have done without all the scene shifting every few minutes.
I understand the need for it as the action moves from a wee grey house in Scotland, to a train, and onwards to various public rooms in a luxury hotel in Vienna, but it does spoil the flow of the narrative.
However, Jeannie is heart-warming and utterly delightful. A real winner. Running at the Finborough Theatre until December 22.