A Subject of Scandal and Concern at the Finborough Theatre
Apart from staging new works, the Finborough Theatre is known for reviving forgotten plays that still have something to say to a modern audience. On this occasion the venue presents A Subject of Scandal and Concern, a piece that is both old and novel. Written by John Osborne for a television production in 1960 (starring Richard Burton and Rachel Roberts), it is now being performed in a London theatre for the very first time.
Set in 1842 and based on a true story, the play tells the tale of George Holyoake, a teacher with socialist leanings who, during a public speech, boldly criticises the Church: he voices his concern regarding the financial burden that worship constitutes to the country. Incredulous at his remarks the community attack him and accuse him of profanity. Known as the last man to stand trial for blasphemy in England, Holyoake trusts no lawyer to accept or understand his views and thus chooses to defend himself in court unaided.
From an ideological perspective as well as in the physical sense, Holyoake is cornered and alienated. As the action often sees the protagonist restrained, the limited space available at the Finborough theatre does not pose a problem. The audience sits on either side of the stage and level with it, creating the impression that the seats are an extension of the action, which is particularly effective in the courtroom scenes. Wooden frames are rearranged swiftly in choreographed sequences to create different settings. This ties the scenes smoothly and adds movement to what is a largely static piece.
Actor Jamie Muscato succeeds in finding the right balance as he impersonates a character that is more complex than he may at first appear. George Holyoake is both reserved and assertive, he is held back by a speech impediment and yet he stands up for himself fearlessly. The cast at large is strong and apart from Muscato and Caroline Moroney, who plays Mrs Holyoake, the actors take on multiple roles and handle the shifts seamlessly. Edmund Digby-Jones is particularly impressive as he switches from cynical brother-in-law to punctilious clerk (providing the only bit of humour in the play), and finally a condescending chaplain.
Although the atmosphere is inevitably weighed down by the heavy themes, the dialogue is sharp enough to keep the audience engaged. The play may not be modern or innovative, but the content is undoubtedly fascinating. A Subject of Scandal and Concern is an interesting account of the past raising questions about how far freedom of expression can stretch even in the present time.
A Subject of Scandal and Concern is on at the Finborough Theatre from 22nd May until 7th June 2016, for further information or to book visit here.