“Do you not like the whistle Mrs Ferguson…?”
There is often the sense that selective quoting from the Bible can assert pretty much any viewpoint and so it turns out in St John Ervine’s John Ferguson, receiving its first airing in the UK for nearly 100 years with this production at the Finborough Theatre, directed by Emma Faulkner. Set in the 1880s in the unforgiving Ulster farmland of County Down, it centres on the Ferguson family and the trials they are forced to ensure when threatened with foreclosure by their grasping neighbour and tenant-holder, the dastardly Henry Witherow.
Ageing paterfamilias John is unwell and thus unable to work the land that gives them their living, finding succour instead from burying his head in a well-worn copy of the Bible. And in a reversal of roles, his son Andrew is induced to return from his training to join the ministry in order to run the farm. But he is ill-suited to the job at hand, they’re behind with payments and the promised cheque from John’s brother in America has failed to materialise. The only collateral they seem to possess comes in the form of daughter Hannah’s hand.
And thus the moral dilemma of the play is formed. All the family’s problems could be solved if Hannah married a man she doesn’t love – the earnest if dull James Caesar – but Witherow has his beady eye on her too and an ill-advised walk in the dark sets in chain a series of events which threatens to swallow up the whole family whole, and which no amount of psalm quoting can hold at bay. The role of faith in the play initially feels very much of its time but as it progresses and as John allows himself to guided so thoroughly, even blindly, it becomes increasingly pertinent.
Ciaran McIntyre is convicning as a man desperate to find purpose in even the most horrific of events and he is well matched by Veronica Quilligan as his much more pragmatic wife who sees everything crumbling. Zoe Rainey’s Hannah is a vivid presence, chafing at her lack of agency in this world, and yet grateful for the interventions of her taciturn brother, a grimly satisfying turn from Alan Turkington. Faulkner encourages a strong emotional honesty from her actors which does much to cover the occasional longueurs in the dialogue and raise the stakes of this melodrama.
James Turner’s design is bleakly, correctly, stark, though the highlighted presence of a Chekhovian gun speaks of the subtlety or otherwise of Ervine’s writing which additionally loses its way somewhat in the second act, dramatic imperative being sacrificed for expositional meanderings and it is only in the final moments that the emotional impact resonates as hard as it should. Still, John Ferguson makes for an intriguing revival which cleverly forefronts its strengths.