Finborough Theatre, London – until 28 January 2023
In my last review I was pointing out how long it had taken for Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce to transition from the stage to an audio version. At least it did get a production on stage (and at the National Theatre to boot); not so David French’s two hander Salt-Water Moon.
Across the Atlantic it has regularly been hailed as a classic since it premiered in 1984 but only now has it reached the UK. This is at the initiative of the Finborough Theatre which, it has claimed, has debuted more Canadian plays than any other venue; that may be true but without wishing to appear rude just how many Canadian playwrights readily spring to mind? Be that as it may French has certainly been at the forefront of the movement producing a dozen or so well regarded pieces including Jitters, a farce which examined backstage animosities a full three years before Michael Frayn came up with the idea in Noises Off. Among his most significant work are his so called “Mercer” plays a five play cycle about the lives of an extended family throughout the 20th century.
Salt-Water Moon is one of these (written third but chronologically second, as far as I can tell) and looks at how the Mercer parents came together in 1926 Newfoundland (at that time still a separate Dominion territory rather than part of Canada itself). This “other landedness” provides the context of the play as young Jacob Mercer has suddenly headed for the bright lights of Toronto leaving behind his sweetheart Mary Snow. Now Jacob has returned and wants to pick up where they left off but Mary has become engaged to another and is not ready to sacrifice certainty and security to fall in with Jacob’s plans. Suffused with some rather outmoded gender politics, the play becomes an extended examination of both their pasts and of their possible futures together. It’s a standard will they/won’t they dialogue featuring a pair of polished and confident performances which hold interest throughout.
There is nothing particularly original or thrilling in the scenario – indeed the outcome never seems to be in doubt – but the audience is taken on an interesting journey to the point where the pair reach a mutual understanding. And along the way there are some well crafted monologues which fill in the gaps of the personalities involved along with a potted history lesson about the contribution Newfoundlander soldiers made to the First World War effort.
There’s also an intriguing picture painted of what is the essentially closed in community of Coley’s Point (French’s original home town). Newfoundland itself is geographically closer to Ireland than it is to western Canada and is home to a vast array of maritime immigrants all of which have contributed to the unique dialects and cadences of the spoken language there. Dialect Coach Mary Howland deserves credit for ensuring that we hear the Celtic and English West country antecedents mixed in with French rhythms, standard Canadian pronunciation and a number of other influences. At times I found myself becoming slightly distracted as an overemphasised phrase gave me pause for thought about its origins but in terms of setting us in a particular time and place it more than does the business.
The two actors also mostly vocally convince and if there are some rough edges still which jar, no doubt a more extended run will smooth these away. There is, however, no doubting their abilities to pin down a characterisation and home in on the duo’s emotional truths. Bryony Miller starts by giving Mary a superior edge, after all she is the one who is morally in the right. When Jacob suddenly reappears Miller puts her completely on the defensive but skilfully ensures her character gradually melts as he works his magic. Potter has a mischievous twinkle and the gift of the gab (someone really should cast him as Christy in Playboy Of The Western World) and gives a very entertaining account of going to the cinema to watch a Tom Mix film – even if he is making it up. But Potter also has the ability to make the more sincere moments of his dialogue take flight so that what emerges is a much more fully rounded character than might otherwise have been the case. While I can’t say it thrilled me half as much as his turn in The Poltergeist last year, it is another significant entry on this young actor’s so far glowing CV.
I’m not sure that Salt-Water Moon enthralled me enough to make me want to seek out the other four parts of French’s play cycle. In any case, it is clear that piece stands on its own two feet without needing to do so. I think we’ve all moved on since the early 80s and if it’s taken that long for the play to reach these shores, there is probably a good reason for that. However, it’s an engagingly intimate production and the two performers have no place to hide – nor do they need to. If you want to see a couple of young actors bringing truth and sincerity to a well structured piece of dialogue and elevate it towards the stars which provide a backdrop to this piece, then head for the Finborough and rejoice in the consistency of its programming and delivery.