Masks and Faces

Charles Reade and Tom Taylor
Finborough Theatre
(2004)

Masks and Faces is a sentimental comic melodrama set amongst 18th century acting folk and has been languishing in obscurity for almost 75 years. This may be partly due to the large cast, ten in this case, required to perform it.

The acting folk include some of the most famous of their day, in particular Peg Woffington and Colley Cibber, and while the plot hardly deserves to win awards it is rather fun. It contains not only several extremely humorous lines but also some aphorisms almost worthy of Oscar Wilde and philosophical musings about the theatre. Many of the latter are as true today as they were 250 years ago when it was set and 150 when it was written.

Following this revival, the play may well attain a degree of popularity that sees it performed much more regularly, as it was during the first 75 years of its life. In one production, Ellen Terry made an appearance as Mabel Vane and in 1907 it even made it to Broadway. The current company should feel proud of their efforts in discovering and reviving it.

As in so many of the best comedies, the plot is based entirely on misunderstandings, unbridled desire and remarkable innocence. Ernest Vane (Asa Joel) has fallen for the great actress, Peg Woffington (Charlotte Pyke), much to the envy of his rival, Sir Charles Pomander (Thomas Power).

Having fixed a little party for the lady, it is inevitable that Vane's innocent wife, Mabel (Catherine Hayes) will turn up from the country at just the wrong moment.

The day is saved partly by a series of unlikely theatrical devices and also because the hard-edged Miss Woffington has been generous to Triplet (Jonathan Lisle), a starving playwright. He had, in turn, once fed her as a child. On the stage, this kind of generosity is inevitably rewarded by a happy ending.

Catriona McLoughlin's production is played in the round in Cordelia Chisholm's cleverly designed set. It has well-chosen incidental music from Blur that keeps the show upbeat.

However, this revival suffers from the director's request to the actors to offer an overly-mannered style. This makes them all seem excessively effete and swallows some of the best comic lines. The two exceptions are Charlotte Pyke who offers a very wry, sympathetic performance as Peg Woffington, and Asa Joel who does well as the philandering Vane.

Philip Fisher