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Lingua Franca

Peter Nichols
Finborough Theatre
(2010)

Publicity photo

After a long silence, Peter Nichols returns to the limelight with a new play that, as the programme notes suggest, must surely have grown from autobiographical seeds.

Set in Florence 55 years ago, it follows the misfortunes of a mismatched group of EFL teachers at the regimented language school of the title.

The central character is Chris New's Steven, a bright young Englishman searching for something but probably no more certain than we are as to what it might be.

The writer uses this potentially (and actually) clichéd setting as a forum to explore the times but more particularly the recent past and the World War that is still uppermost in the memories of every one of the seven characters.

They are a carefully chosen bunch. There is a lecherous Italian principal who takes advantage of his status but gains some sympathy as a Jew, a tedious Rhinemaiden, a stately Russian Jewess, the reincarnation of Lewis Carroll, a hard as nails Australian lesbian, a desperate Englishwoman of a certain age (played with impeccable fragility by Charlotte Randle) and our guide.

Steven may be a relative innocent but he almost gets expelled and plays fast and loose with the women, firm in the belief that, unlike the rest, he will move on to better things.

While the age-old language school comedy dominates, Nichols also uses his creations to at least scratch the surface of simmering hatred caused by the War. He also gives us a glimpse of modern culture and some idea of the way in which Europe is beginning to move on.

There are flashes of the old Nichols style, with isolated individuals talking directly to the audience and even teaching them the language of cutlery, plus a smattering of lewd rugger songs.

Ultimately, this feels like one of those plays born of experience that the playwright may have left in a drawer for half a century then felt the need to air in a fit of catharsis. As such, its appeal will probably be greatest to those that have lived through similar events themselves.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher