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The Tailor of Inverness – Finborough Theatre | Review

The Tailor of Inverness sets out to tell the fascinating life story of Mateusz Zajac, a Roman Catholic, born in 1919 in Galicia in eastern Poland, but since the end of World War Two in western Ukraine, and how he eventually ended up as a tailor in Inverness. He was taken prisoner by the Soviets in 1939 and forced to work on a collective farm, freed after Hitler’s invasion and joined the thousands of Poles fighting with the British army in North Africa and Italy.

Or did he?

The Tailor of Inverness. Photo credit: Tim Morozzo
The Tailor of Inverness. Photo credit: Tim Morozzo

His son, playwright and actor Matthew Zajac, has attempted to piece together the life story of his wandering father, a very difficult thing to do as there are at least three quite different stories that Mateusz himself told, and even British army records have conflicting versions. What is clear is that he did whatever was necessary to survive, and if that meant inventing a colourful past that was all part of survival.

Matthew Zajac’s one person play was first seen in Edinburgh in 2008, since when it has toured all shapes and sizes of venues, from Scottish village halls, to prestigious theatres in New York, Adelaide, Berlin and Kyiv, garnering many awards along the way. This is its first appearance in London.

It is written both in Polish and English, Polish (with surtitles) often being used for the flashback sequences and songs. What grabs one’s attention from the outset is the terrific energy, not only in the writing but also in the powerful portrayal of his father by Matthew Zajac. The eighty-five minute playing time flashes by as we are quickly involved in the various threads of his father’s life, especially between 1939 and 1948. The writing has a particular clarity – not a word is wasted – and Matthew has a stage charisma which is undeniable. Sitting on stage with him is violinist Jonny Hardy, who says not a word but who comments on and describes the action in music; however this is never used too much and always adds to the poignancy of what is being said or sung, as many Polish folk songs are used,

In addition, our understanding is aided by projections (Kai Fischer) onto the set (Ali Maclaurin), showing where Mateusz’s various journeys may have taken him. In fact, although there is a potted history of Poland and Ukraine in the programme, it is not really necessary for those who have a basic knowledge of what happened in Europe in the twentieth century.

The programme calls The Tailor of Inverness a memoir rather than a play, which is an excellent description. It is certainly engrossing, occasionally moving and, above all, an unusual and excellent piece of theatre. Highly recommended.

4 stars

Review by John Groves

Written and performed by Matthew Zajac
Directed by Ben Harrison
Design by Ali Maclaurin
Lighting by Kai Fischer
Music by Jonny Hardie and Gavin Marwick
Sound by Timothy Brinkhurst.
Presented by Dogstar Theatre Company in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
With Matthew Zajac and violinists Jonny Hardie or Amy Geddes

The Tailor of Inverness is an unforgettable story of displacement and survival in war-torn Europe. An allegory for all victims of war and given a powerful new resonance by recent events, it is a story of journeys, of how a boy who grew up on a farm in Galicia (then in Eastern Poland, now in Western Ukraine) came to be a tailor in Inverness…

The show tells the story of Matthew Zajac’s Polish father, Mateusz, whose life spanned most of the 20th century. Taken prisoner by the Soviets in 1939, he was freed in an amnesty after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and joined the thousands of Poles fighting with the British Army in North Africa and Italy. He was then resettled in Britain in 1948, joining his brother in Glasgow.

Dogstar Theatre’s The Tailor of Inverness
Finborough Theatre
Tuesday, 14 May – Saturday, 8 June 2024

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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