A SUBJECT OF SCANDAL AND CONCERN – Finborough Theatre, London.
2016 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the term “angry young man” being coined by George Fearon in an attempt to describe John Osborne’s post-war writing to an audience more accustomed to Coward and Agatha Christie. Fearon was trying to promote Osborne’s first play Look Back in Anger, but created a phrase that was unwittingly prescient, as is now being demonstrated in the Finborough Theatre’s production of A Subject of Scandal and Concern.
Written for a 1960 television production that starred Richard Burton, the play explores a brief moment in the life of Victorian secularist George Holyoake. Travelling from Birmingham to Bristol, Holyoake stopped in Cheltenham to lecture, and, through his honest appraisal of Britain’s social and political situation, ended up being tried for blasphemy. He was the last person in the country to be convicted of this crime and Osborne presents a nation on the precipice of an ideological shift.
Despite being set in 1842 and written 56 years ago, the play remains startlingly relevant. The audience is asked to question several things: the relevance of religion in modern society, how a Socialist culture impacts our moral wellbeing, and the limits of censorship in relation to free speech. At one point, Holyoake pleads: “There is a strange infirmity in English minds which makes them accept a bad principal which they, as Englishmen, are no longer bad enough to put into practice.” If Osborne had known that these words would be spoken at the time of an EU Referendum, continuing debates on immigration and a NHS in crisis, he could be forgiven for feeling smug.
The play itself is framed by a contemporary lawyer opening and closing proceedings, encouraging the audience to put the historical events into a current context almost immediately. And theatrically, director Jimmy Walters and choreographer Ste Clough have created a piece that combines modern physical theatre with a more traditional court room Drama style.
The cast cleverly use six grates to create settings and demonstrate passage of time. However, in a fast moving play the grates are barely allowed to settle and the constant repositioning becomes an almost laughable nuisance that undermines the work of the script. A large amount of the movements seem unnecessary and give the proceedings a sense of GCSE Drama hyperbole. The play is packed with arguments and ideas and requires the audience to be able to listen and focus. After some of the more frantic physical episodes the actors have to work hard to re-engage the audience and only a few have got what it takes.
As George Holyoake, Jamie Muscato has the presence and energy that has the audience on his side for the very beginning (especially after he’s had to climb over all the furniture.) He makes George a sympathetic and vulnerable character and it is hard not to feel the injustice of his tale. Holyoake physically and mentally weakens as the play proceeds and it is extraordinary to watch Muscato visibly deal with this in the space of an hour.
The rest of the cast play a variety of roles, though with little distinction between them. There is a uniform caricature-like quality to their Gloucestershire accents and an earnestness to their storytelling that treads a fine line between theatre and pedagogy. At moments the play starts to become a history lesson, but is generally saved by Doron Davidson and Edmund Digby-Jones who bring a levity to their performances that humanises both the characters and the plot.
It is admirable that the Finborough has chosen to bring this play to London for the first time and it is a glowing example of why this is a theatre that should be protected.
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by Robert Pearce
22nd May – 7th June 2016
Finborough Theatre, London, SW10 9ED.