“We do serious plays – Russian plays and that sort of thing”
The pleasures of theatregoing, especially in London, are many and varied but amongst my favourites are the chances offered to see some of our best actors in the most intimate of surroundings. So the opportunity to see the glorious Celia Imrie in the 50 seater Finborough Theatre in Earls Court was one I was never likely to miss. She is part of a large company performing Drama At Inish, a 1933 Irish comedy by Lennox Robinson which has not been seen in London for 60 years, in a strictly limited engagement. Also known as Is Life Worth Living?, the play is something of a farcical comedy, set in the small village of Inish where a travelling repertory company arrive for the summer, replacing the usual circus with their weightier fare of Ibsen, Tolstoy, Strindberg and Chekhov. But their serious drama soon begins to impact massively on the mood of the town with the inhabitants sinking into a melancholy morass of neuroses, unduly influenced by the theatre going on around them.
Fidelis Morgan’s production is full of hustle and bustle as the cast of thirteen swirl around the Seaview Hotel, where the entire show takes place, spread over a week. The actor couple of Hector De La Mare and Constance Constantia – a delightfully expansive pair of performances from Rupert Frazer and Juliet Cadzow – watch on bemusedly as their drama plays out in real life with character after character affected by what they see: political consciences, long hidden romances and secret dead children are exposed, people are moved to attempt suicide and murder, but it is all played with a jovial silliness that lifts the heart.
Celia Imrie is just fantastic as the put-upon Lizzie, the spinster sister of Jack Klaff’s bounteous whiskey-guzzling proprietor who does most of the work running the hotel and whose melodramatic revelations of past lost love form the undoubted highlight of the show, her every gesture and mannerism is finely tuned to maximise the humour and watching her work up close is a genuine privilege. Hermione Gulliford’s no-nonsense Miss Lambert is also excellent, batting away the affections and constant proposals of the puppyish Eddie, appealingly played by David Walshe, and there are great cameos from Christopher Logan as an inquisitive journalist, Lee Knight as a firm policeman and Oengus Mac Namara’s Peter Hurley who is forever popping his head round the door.
And the play does need this excellent character work as it isn’t the most sophisticated piece of writing one will come across. It’s a little hamstrung by never leaving the one location, meaning there are constant reports of things happening elsewhere; it is exceedingly neat in its construction and the final act lacks some of the sparky humour that preceded it in the first two. But overall, this is such a charming, gentle comedy that pootles along in the most agreeable of fashions with moments of uproarious laughter coming from some delightfully judged comic performances and there’s even a surprise cameo appearance from, well…that would be telling now! (Let’s just say The Seamus Hoolihan Show doesn’t have quite the same ring to it for a daytime chat show…)