The Passing of the Third Floor Back at Finborough Theatre
The revival of once-popular plays that have fallen out of favour is always hit-and-miss. Frequently, it’s apparent why works haven’t been performed in years, and in the case of Jerome K Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back, that reason is the overwhelming sentimentality. Edwardian audiences seemed to love it – the play had long West End and Broadway runs, and two films were made of it – but now it begins to grate.
The piece is most successful in its extended prologue, which paints a witty picture of life in an Edwardian boarding house populated by unpleasant people. It’s an excellent portrayal of the hypocrisy of impoverished gentility, and we’re treated to some wonderful clichés of character types, all listed in the programme with one-word insults such as “A Cad”, “A Hussy” and “A Snob”. Anna Mottram is particularly good as Mrs Sharpe, the stingy landlady who waters down the milk, as are Graham Pountney and Caroline Wildi as Major and Mrs Tompkins, desperate to marry off their daughter to the house’s only wealthy resident. At the end of the prologue, the action starts to kick off as a mysterious stranger (Alexander Knox) enters and asks to rent the only remaining room, the “third floor back”.
He immediately charms the testy Mrs Sharpe, and in the next scene, which forms the meat of the play, goes through the rest of the household, convincing them all that there is good in each of them, and that they should change their ways. Unfortunately, this scene drags rather, as we proceed repetitively through reforming all ten other characters, and Knox is perhaps more creepy than beatific. This is also where the sentimentality really gets going, and it’s all too easy to laugh at it. By the epilogue, the house lives in harmony. The attempted sincerity of the emotion is laudable, but it feels more than a little trite and moralising to a contemporary audience.
The production and acting are both very good, especially in the creation of atmosphere. Jasmine Swan has created a drawing room in dull beaten metal, which feels appropriately claustrophobic, and Lizzie Faber on the harp provides an ethereal score. The stumbling block is the play itself, and regrettably this is an obstacle that can’t really be surmounted.
Photo: Solomon Lawson
The Passing of the Third Floor Back is at the Finborough Theatre from 28th November until 22nd December 2017. For further information or to book tickets visit the theatre’s website here.