The Only True History of Lizzie Finn

Sebastian Barry at Southwark Playhouse

Jagged Fence

Southwark Playhouse

From 27 June 2012 to 21 July 2012

Review by Philip Fisher

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At the beginning of the year, despite considerable experience, Blanche McIntyre collected the Best Newcomer Award from the Critics' Circle, which ups expectations of any director considerably.

This UK premiere of a play first seen at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin as far back as 1995 proves that the critics know a thing or two, as it captures the beauty of a wonderful piece and enhances it with an atmospheric staging and strong cast.

The drama is played out on a series of steps that lead to a dark pool in which float illuminated candles, mirroring those hanging behind and to the side of the stage. They add mystique to James Perkins's design, which is then complemented by subtle lighting from Gary Bowman and haunting strings.

It helps to have the poetry and poignancy, as well as humour, of Sebastian Barry to work with, but this playwright's real strength lies in his ability to create unforgettable characters, many of whom over the years are reputedly modelled on ancestors.

The title has been borrowed from the memoirs of Jesse James's brother Frank, an outlaw whose autobiography inspires Lizzie Finn, a spunky lady who lives outside the norms of her own society, although she breaks moral codes rather than legal ones in following the inspiration of her late father by becoming a singer and dancer.

Shereen Martin is on top form in this role, matching a well-judged acting performance with song and dance of high quality.

When we first meet her some time in the 1890s, Lizzie Finn is a dancer whose fame exceeds that of Buffalo Bill, at least in Weston-Super-Mare.

With her loyal pal from Yorkshire, Karen Black's Jelly Jill, she treads the boards exciting lads with a routine that culminates in a boisterously leggy can-can.

An innocent, windswept hat leads to a strange altercation with "a big, sad sort of fellah", the shy but righteous Robert Gibson. He is a fellow native of Kerry played by Justin Avoth, a victim of the Boer War, which took the lives of his three brothers.

They may come from the same county but Lizzie and Mr Gibson have very different backgrounds, at times bringing to mind The Prince and the Showgirl. This division becomes apparent after he falls head over heels in love and triumphantly takes his new wife back to the family pile, complete with Penelope Beaumont as a judgmental Mother and a couple of lovably eccentric servants played by Karen Cogan and Andrew Jarvis.

The culture clash that ensues is epitomised by a pair of gold-leafed knickers. They are not the only problem as the snobbish local gentry tries to come to terms with Shereen Martin's plain-speaking though surprisingly respectful Mrs Gibson.

Lizzie is not the only member of the Gibson family with a questionable history. Her husband swapped sides as a protest against the futility of the Boer War, while one of his brothers died a less heroic death in the family archives would wish to record.

By the end, the evening has been repeatedly touched by tragedy so that earlier tears of joy and laughter are long forgotten. Even so, Sebastian Barry engineers a romantic, uplifting ending to a 2½ hour play that should be on everyone's must-see list.