The legacy which some playwrights leave behind them is a curious thing indeed. Take Tom Taylor – he wrote over 100 plays and was one of the most popular dramatists of his day but today even committed theatre goers would struggle to recall who he was. They might just have heard of his 1863 melodrama The Ticket-Of-Leave Man and if of sufficient vintage even have seen it at the National in the early 1980s but that would probably be it. His most famous association with the theatre was actually to do with events offstage rather than on, for it was his farce Our American Cousin which was being watched by Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated in 1865. But now there’s a chance to catch up with one of his most (at the time) successful plays courtesy of the Finborough Theatre.
This is Masks And Faces (full title: Masks And Faces or Before And Behind The Curtain) his 1852 play set in the world of the theatrical profession which the Finborough rediscovered and produced in 2004 and is now being presented as a recorded Zoom reading.
It’s a unique opportunity to visit one era’s view of another as although it was written in mid Victorian times it is set in the world of the Georgian theatre as the profession began to expand and the likes of David Garrick came to the fore. While Garrick does not make an appearance in Masks And Faces, several of his contemporaries such as Colly Cibber and Kitty Clive do. Front and centre is the renowned Irish actress Peg Woffington around whom the intricate plot revolves as she manages to help Triplet an impoverished playwright/poet/painter (the clue is in the name) and restores a besotted admirer Ernest Vane (the clue is in both names) to his stressed and distressed wife.
Along the way – and frankly the more interesting aspect – are several sharp digs at theatricals, their affected manners and behaviours both on and off stage. Some of this is reminiscent of Sheridan’s The Critic and although the latter may have done it better, Taylor’s play still retains some contemporary relevance in looking at the interface between the onstage mask and the public face of the “devotees of Thespis” as the script has it.
Amy McAllister as Peg and Sophie Melville as Mabel Vane embody the worlds of the metropolitan city and the less sophisticated countryside and are both able to deal with the melodrama without being too … well melodramatic. McAllister has some nice quietly reflective moments which work well in this format and has an engaging quality to her voice which makes her a pleasure to listen to (by all accounts the real Woffington was adversely affected by a hard rasp in her vocals).
There’s a fun turn from David Boyle as a very luvvy Cibber though generally the men fare less well. Pomander, the villain of the piece, really isn’t enough of a villain though that’s no criticism of Alexander Knox’s acting, and Matthew Ashforde’s Triplet is far too full of gestures which don’t sit particularly easily on screen. Will Kerr has the rather thankless task of playing the somewhat drippy Vane who causes all the consternation.
There are a couple of delightful cameos from real life reviewers Fiona Mountford and Michael Billington as the oily Soaper and bitchy Snarl and I wish I could have seen more of them (Billington’s account of his participation is an interesting read – here). Some of the other parts are woefully underwritten (or have been savagely cut) and the somewhat odd decision to have the Triplet children played by “voices off” means that screens are left blank which personally I found disconcerting.
I also didn’t find director Matthew Iliffe’s decision to concentrate solely on the speaker all the time particularly conducive. It led to much distracting switching which with some of the repartee became exhausting, not to mention the inevitable time lag. It was not always clear when characters entered or left a scene, and we couldn’t see the reactions of other characters to what was being said which is surely an essential part of this type of drama. It’s interesting that in the final song – where several performers appeared together on screen – the whole thing lifted but by then it was all a bit too late. Visually, of course, we lost a lot through the chosen medium though surely some concession to backgrounds and costumes could have been found. Also, one or two of the cast needed a crash course in pronunciation of some of the more obscure parts of the text or they should have been removed (that’s the references – not the actors). Now, lest I‘m coming across too much like Mr Snarl let me say that it was still an intriguing revival which I’m happier to have seen than not because I enjoy theatre history and think I have some understanding of how life offstage can be. I just wonder how much general appeal this sort of fare might have. Bravo to the Finborough though for trying something a little different and at least for once, given the title, it had nothing to do with the pandemic.