Saturday, March 29, 2008
I paid my first visit to the Finborough in a good long while this week. It appears to have gone all gastropub since I was last there, though I didn’t have time to eat anything. I was running a tad late and didn’t even have time to avail myself of a gin, so, in the opening seconds of the play, when a uniformed waiter sailed in with a cocktail on a tray, I did momentarily wonder if it would be bad form to ask him to pop downstairs and sort me out with a drink.
The Finborough are currently reviving Charles Wood’s Jingo, a dark unsettling farce set in Singapore in 1942. The floor of the theatre has been papered over with a world map, the pink of the British Empire prominent. Susannah Harker plays Gwendoline, an army wife, who is more concerned with the reappearance of former lover Ian than with the imminent Japanese invasion. She is a woman who clearly takes care of herself first, and is implausibly wed to weedy, doltish George, a non-military sort who has been made an honorary major in order to deliver lectures to the troops on the habits of the ‘little yellow men’.
Wood’s play is a bitter thing. The British are depicted as naïve and over-confident, charging into a situation and then retreating when things go awry, leaving the native Chinese to their fate. And though his characters speak in an intensely English manner that is now almost comic, with everything ‘spiffing’ and ‘top notch’ and so forth, the contemporary resonance of the play is considerable.
The cast really throw themselves into it. Susannah Harker is a joy as the divinely self-involved Gwendoline, idly toying with the men in her life for her own amusement; sitting adrift in a ball gown as people flee the country, desperately boarding boats. And Peter Sandys-Clarke is also excellent as George, a priggish and yet deeply pathetic figure, plainly not cut out for battle. Though it appropriates elements of farce, it makes for a rather bleak evening. There are however a number of very memorable scenes, most notably the sight of the broken brigadier with trembling hands begging Gwendoline to spank him - which she duly, if reluctantly, does.