Review – Lingua Franca, Finborough Theatre

Monday 2 August 2010

The Whingers have been cunningly brushing up their linguistics of late. Not by choice, you understand. It’s just rubbing off.

Phil scraped a pass in his School Certificate exam which just about enabled him to cope with the basic French in The Railway Children. But Aspects of Love left both Whingers scratching their heads with entire scenes lost in translation.

If this really is the emerging theatrical trend of vingt-dix perhaps audiences should enrol in the titular Lingua Franca language school of Peter Nichols‘s new play which offers plenty of French, German and la bella lingua to get one’s tongue around. As long as one only wants to know how to say knife, fork and spoon.

Another reason for dropping in to see the school in action before it closes on 7th August is the disproportionately (to the size of the Finborough Theatre)  starry cast. Chris New! Rula Lenska! Why can’t all fringe theatre be comme ça?

They are all teachers in a rather motley Florentine language school in the 1950s where effective teaching is discouraged on the grounds that the slower the students learn, the more lessons they will have to buy.

When they’re not teaching they’re in the staff room sharing their political thoughts, somewhat heavy handedly, on post-war Europe or even more clumsily trying to cop off with each other. Oh, yes, it’s not just the languages they’re getting their tongues around.

They form a real smörgåsbord of cultural stereotypes – the English spinster, the masculine Australian sheila, the wife-cheating Italian, the anti-semitic German and the aristocratic Russian exile.

At the centre of it all is newcomer Stephen Flowers (the autobiographical hero of Nichols’ Privates On Parade) played by Chris New (Prick Up Your Ears, Bent) who is very good but why he insists on wearing cord trews in Florence – let alone in the appropriately sweltering Finborough auditorium – is anyone’s guess.

In a way, the play is quite old fashioned (that’s A Good Thing, obviously) but behind Flowers’ charm lies a cold-hearted ruthlessness which drives the play towards its surprisingly melodramatic – almost Grand Guignol ending which again is A Good Thing, although presumably a bit de trop for some tastes.

Rula Lenska‘s Irena Brentano – resplendent in a turban exactly resembling the one which the Whingers like to imagine Ms Lenska wears chez elle – is very effective although her accent seemed – to our untutored ears – to take a Cook’s tour of Eastern Europe; it was a Tuesday, it must have been Belarus.

There are plenty of other treats: Andrew turned a complete volte face vis a vis Charlotte Randle who previously had the misfortune to be in Love The Sinner but her performance here as the slightly autistic love-starved spinster no doubt struck a chord with Andrew. Ian Gelder (Max in The Sound of Music) convinces entirely as the senior aesthete, Abigail McKern‘s bluff Aussie is a treat and Natalie Walter is quite chilling as the German siren and Enzo Cilenti is so assured as the manager of the school that one really might think he were actually Italian although it turns out he was born in Bradford (albeit to Italian parents).

Director Michael Gieleta keeps it all nicely balanced and even if the play is a bit odd – Flowers’ journey from ingénue to villain leaves the audience a bit high and dry – the people and their performances do make this worth taking in.

But try and wait for a cold day. The heat was so intense that even Andrew was persuaded to part with some money for the Finborough’s air conditioning fund. If anyone has the other £9990.86 the Finborough needs, please write a cheque and send it to Neil McPherson pronto.


4 Responses to “Review – Lingua Franca, Finborough Theatre”

  1. Baldassaro Says:

    Surely Flowers starts his journey as an ingenu rather than ingenue, unless the melodramatic conclusion is even more surprising than you have implied…

  2. David Cottis Says:

    A slightly odd criticism, this; am I the only person who thought Charlotte Randle was too good-looking for her part? She was described as a ‘jolie laide’, whereas Randle is actually quite glam.

  3. Didn’t Ian Gelder play Stephen Flowers in the original production of Privates on Parade? Spooky!

  4. Caroline Says:

    I was doubly disappointed by this play, as I’d read good reviews and previously found Privates On Parade so impressive. Another occasion on which I left at the interval. Too many of the characters behaved in a completely unconvincing fashion, particularly Stephen Flowers and the “German siren”. I can’t believe things were that free and easy in 1955. On the one hand their interaction was incredible (in the original sense, alas) whilst on the other hand, there were too many scenes involving just two or three characters – why were more of them not shown together?

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