Over the last decade the Finborough, under Neil McPherson’s astute stewardship, has garnered a richly deserved reputation for producing in-house, and hosting, revivals of long-forgotten and often overlooked plays that add eclectic depth to the contemporary dramatic canon.
Caste, by T.W. Robertson, produced by new company Project One, is one such: an exquisite little shimmering gem to delight the discerning playgoer.
Whilst Caste’s comédie de moeurs and language is rooted in the mid-nineteenth century (written in 1867) Charlotte Peters’s inspired and sparkling direction ensures its appeal to a modern audience to which long courtships and antipathy to inter-class marriage are as alien as swiping right would be to Victorians. Peters gets the mood, gets the history, gets the relationship-interplay and above all gets the humour. This is a lovely little historical document time-capsuling its period but it’s also a comedy – one of those funny comedies that make audiences laugh spontaneously rather than going through those polite West-End-theatre-audience motions.
To achieve this Peters needs a cast of believers, a cast that throws itself uninhibitedly into their roles with unbridled gay abandon (I use that phrase advisedly in its original Victorian sense). This is a committed company of skilled practitioners who are willing to stretch their craft to the limit to ensure near-comic perfection. Leading the way in this is Rebecca Collingwood as Polly, effervescent and endearing, annoying and alluring, scatty and seductive: she grabs the audience by the throat and screams “Listen to me!
Watch me! Delight in my ability to transform from coquette to confidante in the twinkling of an eye!” This is never more evident than in her penultimate scene solo re-enactment of the ballet “Jeanne la folle, or, Return of the Soldier” where she goes full hyper-over- drive in her attempt to bring her sister down gently (!) regarding interesting news about her deceased husband (fill in your own spoiler). Sister Esther, wooed, married, birthed and widowed is played with discreet charm by Isabella Marshall who manages to combine dainty, love-lorn delicate and dutiful daughter with steely, strong-willed woman of the world to great effect. It’s is no easy part to play but Marshall pulls it off with apparent consummate ease. Progenitor of these two commoner sisters is Eccles (Paul Bradley), the amusingly inebriated work-shy scrounger of a father who wears cor-blimey trousers and a what-me- guv? bowler that doubles nicely as a gratuity receptacle. Bradley is fun and funny – never more so than when he mistakenly drinks milk instead of liquor.
The class-above love-interest is supplied with suitable martial panache by Duncan Moore as George D’Alroy, suitor, husband, and MIA father of Esther’s child – the baby George – and his sidekick, Captain Hawtree (Ben Starr).
Moore is all tall-neatly- pressed-scarlet- uniform, the clipped-moustachioed besotted romantic who knows that he will be disowned by his upper-crust Mother – but he doesn’t care! Moore handles this with deft restraint never
yielding to the temptation of edging into caricature. He looks dashing in his soldier’s get-up, of course, but in the post-marriage domestic scene he sports a long, silver-trimmed, cerulean smoking-coat to die for: I want one.
Starr as Hawtree is a great foil to Moore’s George, starting as rakish and worldly realist before subtly revealing his heart-of-gold by the end. Like the sisters, these two make an intriguing and engaging double-act and the four of them together create a secure platform for the intrinsic comedy to evolve.
Whilst Polly flirts away with Captain Hawtree her real suitor is gas-fitter Sam Gerridge, a Borough Road lad who tells it how it is and doesn’t suffer fools – and inebriated work-shy fathers – gladly. He also indulges in a nice patter of plumbing-pun metaphor. Neil Chinneck is excellent in the role and with his entrepreneurial persona and rags-to- hard-earned- riches ambition Chinneck shows that you don’t have to overplay cockney-comedy to create a believable character and get the laughs.
And then, gliding into the mayhem like a tall ship on a millpond comes George’s Mum – the Marquise de St. Maur. Susan Penhaligon effortlessly appears bedecked with all the grace, poise and venom of a vituperative swan, dismissing commoners with a haughty glance, putting down the little people with a bone-juddering sneer and showing exactly what it takes to be an upper-class cow. Once again, there is no caricature in Penhaligon’s performance just the pure joy of unbridled snobbery.
So we have a bunch of vivacious Victorians about whom Robertson is adept at poking fun, spinning a light but intriguing story around their mores, their loves, their attitudes and their station in society. Robertson is seen as the father of modern staging and broke the mould of fantasy theatre to introduce naturalistic drama, influencing many dramatists in the process. Caste is a great example of his work and Project One deserves major plaudits for bringing it back to the stage.
Review by Peter Yates
1867. George D’Alroy is a soldier and the son of French nobility. Esther Eccles is a beautiful ballet dancer from a poor family. When the two fall in love, two very different families are brought together.
After George leaves to serve in India, Esther must deal with a drunken father, a sister with a fierce temper and a terrifying mother in law. Not knowing whether she will ever see her love again, Esther must confront the class prejudices of Victorian England, whilst coping with the chaos created by her increasingly exasperating family members…
Widely considered both as T. W. Robertson’s masterpiece and a ground-breaking milestone in British theatre, Caste was described by George Bernard Shaw as “epoch-making”, whilst W. S. Gilbert said it “pointed the way for a whole new movement”, and when William Archer and Harley Granville Barker planned the programme for their proposed National Theatre, they were agreed that the mid-Victorian period should be “inevitably represented by its one masterpiece, Caste.”
Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Victorian classic
by T. W. Robertson
Directed by Charlotte Peters. Designed by Georgia de Grey. Lighting by Robbie Butler. Original music and sound design by Theo Holloway. Presented by Project One Theatre Company in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Cast: Paul Bradley. Neil Chinneck. Rebecca Collingwood. Isabella Marshall. Duncan Moore. Susan Penhaligon. Ben Starr.
Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED