“They must be her winter knickers…”
Perhaps better known as a novelist (A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture have both been Booker-nominated), Sebastian Barry’s 1995 play The Only True History of Lizzie Finn receives its UK premiere here at the Southwark Playhouse in a production by award-winning director Blanche McIntyre. Having carved a niche for herself as the most celebrated dancer in Weston-Super-Mare, Lizzie Finn finds herself swept off her feet by an Irish soldier returning from the Boer War. Despite their completely different backgrounds, they return to their homeland anticipating married bliss but at a time when changes in the land laws are causing huge societal changes in Ireland, life is far from easy.
The play is not without its challenges. Made up of sequences of short scenes, sometimes just a few lines long, the rhythm of the production is something that takes getting used to: James Perkins’ design of wide steps, whilst effectively evoking the seafront, doesn’t seem particularly well-suited to the format. But in the rather impressionistic approach by McIntyre, moments of visual grace emerge from these scenes, like embers spiralling out of the fire, flashing brightly and disappearing into the dark. I particularly loved the doubling of actors at the Castlemaine’s dinner party to create a witty echoing of an earlier scene.
Likewise, the structure means that characterisation isn’t necessarily that straight-forward here, the playwright bravely leaves much unsaid, making the audience work just a little harder to piece together the shards of character that he does present. Consequently there’s something of an enigmatic quality to Lizzie herself, Shereen Martin’s luminosity belying the innate toughness of the woman who has endured much in her working-class background to get to this point and she always leaves us with the sense that there is more to be revealed – this is truly a woman ahead of her time. Justin Avoth’s Robert matches her well, as he works through his own post-war stresses, theirs is a class-defying relationship we root for though the production could have done a little more to emphasised how ostracised from society they were.
As it was, it’s Robert’s mother Lucinda, Penelope Beaumont in quietly dignified form, who shoulders much of this responsibility yet the character doesn’t quite feel substantial enough to take this weight. Lucy Black’s Can-Canning comrade Jelly Jane is a beautifully played performance, Karen Cogan threatens to steal every scene she is in as the ditzy maid Teresa – memorably described as being like “two buckets banging together” – and Andrew Macklin’s bird-calling is a thing of a genius.
Full of striking imagery and Barry’s straightforwardly honest prose, The Only True History of Lizzie Finn emerges with an elegiac quality that warms the soul.