John Ferguson

St John Ervine
Finborough Theatre

Ciaran McIntyre, Veronica Quilligan, Zoe Rainey Credit: Stuart Allen
David Walshe, Veronica Quilligan Credit: Stuart Allen
Veronica Quilligan, Paul Reid, Ciaran McIntyre Credit: Stuart Allen

In its early minutes, John Ferguson seems to have all of the makings of a rip-roaring melodrama.

Set in a County Down village almost 135 years ago, ailing John, played by Ciaran McIntyre proves himself to be a true believer of the quietly fundamentalist variety.

His faith is sorely tried by events over the next 2¼ hours. By the time that the play starts, the destitute Ferguson family is about to be evicted by the evil mortgagor.

All that can save them is the postman bringing news from John's brother across the Atlantic.

When none comes, another lifeline appears in the drippy form of Paul Reid playing Jimmy Caesar. He is the kind of man about whom John's daughter Hannah, given real humanity by Zoe Rainey says "I wouldn't marry him if he was the last man on earth".

It won't take much imagination to guess the price that Jimmy exacts for his cash. Hannah accepts her fate then falters and sets in train a terrible series of events.

First, she inexplicably ends up walking on a dark path with Henry Witherow, the embodiment of a wicked stage landlord. His sin is never explicitly named but leaves the poor girl in tears. Pleasingly, he pays the ultimate penalty and it drives everyone else mad.

The problem with the piece is that their behaviour becomes almost random thereafter in the service of writer St John Ervine's desire to entertain and make a few points about human nature.

Perhaps oddest of all is the penny whistle playing village idiot, David Walshe's Clutie John, who is required to whip up others into a fervour and shows rather more wit and eloquence than several of his fellows.

A Chekovian gun sits on a wall awaiting its moment of action, which duly arrives, though it takes some time to know who has pulled the trigger in the name of revenge.

Before the end, a great deal of hysteria is meted out, especially by Veronica Quilligan as John's wife Sarah.

This is the first UK producton in the 100 years since this play first saw the light of day at the Abbey. Director Emma Faulkner and her acting team seem under-prepared but even on top form might struggle to turn this contrived piece into a hit, though it might benefit considerably from heavy cutting.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher