I am rather fond of the Finborough theatre, it has introduced me to a number of exciting, challenging, new plays over the last 18 months – Unscorched and Silent Planet particularly stand-out in my mind as I write. They do also stage revivals, typically of neglected works. Its location can be a challenge, particularly on the day of a Chelsea home game when one has to share the streets of Earls Court and the Finborough Arms (which acts as the foyer to the theatre) with boisterous football aficionados, but is not really that remote from Waterloo (where I am – on a good day – delivered by Southwest Trains).
Often on a Sunday, they stage two different plays – a matinée and an evening performance – which does boost the benefit side of the trip-to-London equation. The downside is the risk of engineering work and the fact the last train home goes at 22:54 (it would seem that Stagecoach do not expect the denizens of Southampton to stay out late on a Sunday, unlike the lotus eaters of nearby Portsmouth who have services until 00:50). Still, yesterday I decide to brave the outbound replacement bus service as far as Eastleigh and keep my fingers crossed for the 22:54 home. As a result, I spent the afternoon and evening indulging in Victorian fun (for the avoidance of doubt, no laudanum was consumed by your reporter).
The matinee was of the rarely performed Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, Princess Ida. Given the diminutive size of the Finborough, this was akin to having G&S with a pretty full cast performed in your living room (if you had also invited 39 friends to join you). The orchestra, for obvious reasons, had to be reduced (by transcription) to two pianists and the audience were a little cramped – but the whole thing was quite an experience , especially when the full cast (a baker’s dozen) are on stage singing and acting at once. I’m pretty sure I have never seen Ida performed before, but I did know one of the songs – as a man with tiefe stimme, I had explored a little of Lord Gama’s output as part of my attempts to become a singer (one generally does have to play the elderly in G&S, a role continue to transition into). I have to say the performance delivered all that one could have wished for: young lovers, a wicked guardian and lots of silliness (and, I must admit, some slightly dodgy gender politics). The staging was as thrifty and clever as I have come to expect at the Finborough and only an audience member with the the hardest of hearts could have failed to have a wonderful time (even if corrective knee and buttock surgery may have been advisable afterwards).
Between the afternoon and evening performances I found myself wandering the streets of Earls Court in search of victuals. As I was doing this, someone coming towards me seemed oddly familiar – not an unusual occurrence as I am more than capable of recognising complete strangers and also because I was not wearing my specs. I tend not to wear my glasses when just ambling about as I have realised (as Hollywood did many years before me) that most of the world looks better in slightly relaxed focus – and it also makes catching glimpses of myself in reflective surfaces substantially less traumatic. However, the impression remained as we grew closer together and I finally realised that it was Prince Hilarion (once and future husband to Princess Ida) in mufti and riding a skateboard. Now I do realise that these people are just actors and he is not really a Hungarian prince, but it was still oddly jarring to see him in this mode – despite the fact that I had already seen him dressed as both a prince and a classically-attired woman during the course of the afternoon. The lad had a fine voice, and I suspect some Teutonic heritage which means that while he was unlikely to have had to change his name on joining Equity (surely there was not already a Zac Wancke?) he may well have been horribly bullied at school.
Refuelled, I returned to the theatre foyer and enjoyed some of the liquid refreshment on offer as part of a mid-west beer festival being staged(!) there – well, it covered Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Shropshire (for some reason) and how else might one describe that group of counties? – before further Victorian fun in the form of Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor. This play is (in)famous as being the one Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated. I had always assumed that this would be some serious work of art inspired by Melpomene, but as it transpires it owes far more to her sister Thalia, i.e. it was broad comedy, verging on farce. Luckily, I survived the fateful line – when John Wilkes Booth (playing the eponymous hero) carried out the wicked (and decidedly unheroic) deed under the cover of a reliable laugh – and so remain unassassinated (for now) and saw the denouement. Oddly, I am unaware of any other murder committed under similar cover – but perhaps MI5 should be recruiting more comedians (or Brian Rix) rather than sitting around reading our email. The current James Bond franchise could also benefit from being a tad less po-faced. The play still made me (and many of my fellow audience members) laugh despite being 150+ years old (the play, I am barely a third of that) and having gone unperformed in the capital for more than a century – or perhaps my sense of humour is just rather Victorian. I couldn’t help wondering what the Americans of the 1860s would have made of it and their portrayal therein – but according to the programme it was a huge success (other than depleting North America to the tune of one president – and we can’t blame the playwright for that).
Victorian values have a terribly poor press – but I think this may be because people espousing them usually make very poor choices from the menu on offer – but they can offer a very entertaining day out and still deliver you to Waterloo in time for the train home. I can thoroughly recommend it, but would note that this opinion may not necessarily generalise to other activities hailing from the same regnal period.