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Dr Angelus at Finborough Theatre – Review

Dr AngelusIf the ringing sounds before the start of the first half of this production of Dr Angelus were confusing, because they sounded ominously similar to the sort of ringing bells that used by theatres to denote those members of the audience not already seated should now empty the bar and fill the auditorium, the ones before the start of the second were deafening. I wondered if there was a genuine emergency and was half-ready to leave the theatre. My naivety aside, the alarm bells ringing were uncomfortably loud. I am sure it was not just me, judging by the reaction of some other members of the audience, on whichever of the three sides of the performance space where seats were positioned.

The salient point here is that it was a minute or two into the second half before my hearing was restored to the extent of being able to hear the dialogue once more. I wonder if, given that a scene later in the second half had to be restarted – I haven’t the inclination to go into the minutiae of what exactly happened – those ridiculous alarm bells affected the actors as much as it did me.

Elsewhere, several sudden light changes at the end of Act One proved more distracting than perhaps was intended. Too clichéd, the performance space got literally darker as the plot became metaphorically darker. It adds an extra layer to a show’s power when it happens out of doors, such as in the summer 2014 Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, in which it naturally got darker, in various senses of the word, as dusk fell. But here, it came across as too superficial.

Thank goodness, then, for such a strong cast. Dr George Johnson (a consummately convincing Alex Bhat) is the relatively inexperienced partner in a doctor’s practice, academically able but yet to be fully conversant with the sort of skills and powers of perception that only come from being a student in the university of life. He ends up going through something of a quarter-life crisis, combated by the assured wit of Malcolm Rennie’s Inspector MacIvor.

An earlier scene in the middle of the night was so laughable and borderline melodramatic, despite its technically sober content, that it reminded me of ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’ in the musical The Book of Mormon – in other words, a purely satirical scene. I still don’t know for certain if that was the intended purpose or not. As for MacIvor, he seemed to take a leaf out of the late Sir David Frost’s style of interviewing. He draws out more information from Johnson and Janet McAdam (Rosalind McAndrew) than he would have done had he adopted a more confrontational and aggressive style. If anything, his technique and way with words provide some comic relief for the audience in what can be a production that is difficult to watch.

Dr Cyril Angelus (David Rintoul), the title character, has a dramatic flamboyancy about his person. As the relatively recent Harold Shipman case is still fresh in the minds of many, I wonder what prompted this production, involving a medical practitioner doing the opposite of what would be reasonably expected of him, to be staged at this time. Angelus doesn’t dispatch with as many people as Shipman did, and Angelus’ motives are clearly explained in the show. They do not, of course, redeem the character; nonetheless, the play does well to provide its audiences with that sort of insight into the workings of Angelus’ mind.

Published in 1949, the play is of its time and, sorry to report, a little too slow for me. The ultimate end result is fairly predictable – bearing in mind I hadn’t read up on the real-life case on which the play is based – but the play is still an intriguing portrayal of a dilemma in which one is damned if one does and damned if one doesn’t.

Three and a half gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

You had your suspicions and you should have had the guts to speak out.
A production commissioned by the Finborough Theatre, and rediscovering one of the West End’s most popular dramatists of the 1930s and 1940s.

Glasgow, 1920. Earnest young doctor George Johnson has just been made partner in the medical practice of his eccentric senior colleague Dr Angelus. It seems like the perfect start to his career. When Dr Angelus’ treatment of his own mother-in-law results in her death, George remains fiercely loyal to his mentor. But as suspicions of murder multiply and the true nature of his partner is revealed, he finds himself caught in a web of deceit…

A classic psychological thriller, Dr Angelus draws on James Bridie’s own background as a doctor and the true life case of Dr Edward Pritchard, the last person to be hanged in Glasgow. Laced with gallows humour, Bridie’s surreal and sinister play asks what price the individual will pay if they speak out, and what is at stake if they do not.

Playwright, author, screenwriter and doctor, James Bridie was one of the founding fathers of modern Scottish theatre, and one of the West End’s most acclaimed dramatists of the 1930s and 1940s. His work has been unseen outside Scotland for many years, and has now been rediscovered by the Finborough Theatre. This marks the first production in England since its 1947 London premiere, starring Alastair Sim and George Cole.

DR ANGELUS
by James Bridie
Directed by Jenny Ogilvie. Designed by Tina Torbey. Lighting by Marec Joyce. Costume Design by Tina Torbey. Presented by Robyn Bennett in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Cast: Alex Bhat. Lesley Harcourt. Vivien Heilbron. Rosalind McAndrew. Malcolm Rennie. David Rintoul.

Book to 20th December 2016
http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/

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