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Salt-Water Moon at Finborough Theatre

Almost by way of necessity, there’s a lot of recalling of the past in this long dialogue (but short play) between Mary Snow (Bryony Miller) and Jacob Mercer (Joseph Potter). But, knowing there aren’t going to be joined by anyone else – because there is no one else in the cast list – the discerning audience is fully aware that one way or another, the lines of communication are going to be kept open. For instance, we know the running time, so when one of them leaves the stage, unless there’s going to be a tediously long monologue to close out proceedings, the other one isn’t going to be on their own for more than a minute – perhaps less.

Joseph Potter, Bryony Miller - credit Lucy Hayes.
Joseph Potter, Bryony Miller – credit Lucy Hayes.

At first glance, the play, and this production, do well to justify the specific setting of Coley’s Point, Newfoundland, in August 1926. The characters’ accents are invariably reminiscent of the townspeople of Gander (175 miles from Coley’s Point), where the hit musical Come From Away is set, save for the occasional slip-up. And there’s sufficient talk about what Jacob may or may not have achieved whilst in the city to firmly establish that country life is substantially different. But, looking at where Coley’s Point is on Google Maps after the show (other online maps are available), and at what limited information there is about the settlement, there isn’t much, if anything, as far as the staging is concerned to indicate a maritime community.

Coley’s Point is where playwright David French (1939-2010) was born – looking up French’s back catalogue proved to be a spoiler in itself, inasmuch as there are four other plays about Jacob and Mary, and the children they went on to have together. It is in this light that the play’s ending becomes totally unambiguous after all, but nonetheless, there’s a feeling of ‘then what?’ immediately after the curtain call, given that, to the best of my recollection, Jacob doesn’t actually apologise for a previous course of action that very evidently upset Mary.

Perhaps macho men didn’t apologise for anything in those days, and through contemporary lenses, some of what is said comes across as though Mary is perceived to be Jacob’s property. Then again, Mary, for her part, is far from a wallflower, and indeed it can be argued that anything resembling a deep and meaningful relationship in the future is going to be on her terms at least as much as his.

There are possible stumbling blocks, mostly in the form of circumstances – there are, without giving too much away, off-stage characters to be taken into consideration. The show verges on being oversentimental, but for me doesn’t quite cross that line from sweetness to saccharine. The socio-historical context of the play is occasionally over-explained: the alternative, leaving the audience in the lurch, would have been much worse, and it is reassuring to know that one need not know anything about the show in advance before coming to see it.

The pair are more than familiar with one another, and this shows in a sometimes sprawling storyline that strikes a balance between being challenging and yet not so complex it cannot be followed. At one point they are quite literally gazing at the stars – and the production manages to engage the audience’s imagination in doing so. An interesting piece of theatre that explores – quite pertinently at a time of economic uncertainty – what lengths people are prepared to go to out of financial necessity, and whether the power of love can override pragmatism. Yes, it’s a love story at the theatre, so the answer is pretty obvious in the end, but this intriguing journey is worth it. A thoughtful and charming production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

It’s a splendid moon-filled night in Coley’s Point in 1926.

Young Jacob Mercer has returned home to the tiny and remote Newfoundland fishing village, desperate to win back his former sweetheart, Mary Snow.

But Mary has become engaged to wealthy Jerome McKenzie, and is still hurt and bewildered by Jacob’s abrupt departure for Toronto a year earlier.

Even to speak to Jacob will put Mary’s wedding plans in jeopardy. Stubborn and independent, she is determined never to forgive Jacob…

A heartbreakingly romantic exploration of young love, set against the shores at the edge of the British Empire.

by David French
Tuesday, 3 January – Saturday, 28 January 2023

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