Masks and Faces
Charles Reade and Tom Taylor
The plucky little Finborough Theatre in London’s Earls Court has been a shining beacon for decades.
Under Neil McPherson, the theatre has worked hard to maintain an online presence throughout the pandemic and is currently preparing for a return to normality.
Before that, it is presenting a new production featuring actors performing from home via Zoom of Masks and Faces, which was originally revived by the company in 2004 after three quarters of a century of obscurity.
As its subtitle Before and Behind the Curtain hints, the collaboration between two of the most significant playwrights of the mid-19th century, Charles Reade and Tom Taylor, is a fun-filled melodrama peopled by famous theatrical names from a century before.
In this 100-minute production directed by Matthew Iliffe, presented as part of the Kensington + Chelsea Festival, the theatre also welcomes a couple of unlikely cast members in real-life theatre critics Michael Billington and Fiona Mountford capably portraying fictional counterparts and, in the latter case, revealing a lovely singing voice.
The plot relies on tried and trusted stereotypes. It opens as Will Kerr and Alexander Knox portraying a couple of rakes, Ernest Vane and Charles Pomander, vie for the affections of legendary actress Peg Woffington.
Amy McAllister relishing the role of the stage star is happy enough to humour them, understanding only too well the lowly status of her trade. However, it quickly becomes apparent that she has a kind heart, offering support to the starving family of Matthew Ashforde’s nervous artistic polymath, Triplet. Almost inevitably given the genre, it is only a matter of time before Vane’s charming but unworldly wife pays a visit from the country.
Sophie Melville is a delight in the role of a woman who innocently blunders her way through what should have been ignominy and embarrassment, making a “sister” of the famed actress at the same time as causing all kinds of troubles and confusion for the philandering men.
Adding glamour if not necessarily much depth to the plot are two other legends of the stage, Colley Cibber and Kitty Clive.
While Zoom presentations will never hold the same attractions as live visits to theatres such as the Finborough, in these difficult times, they have much to offer, allowing companies to cast performers who might not usually be able to spare the time for lengthy rehearsals and a month-long run.
In this case, Matthew Iliffe has done a good job with his cast, superbly led by Sophie Melville and Amy McAllister, and a script that may have a predictable plot but is packed with wit and even a modicum of wisdom, not to mention heart.
As such, this splendid production comes highly recommended.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher