After Dark; or, a Drama of London Life at Finborough Theatre
After Dark’s plot, director Phil Willmott admits, is laughable. An unashamed populist, writer Dion Boucicault himself adapted the work from a French play, Les Oiseaux de Proie, back in 1868. Its character tropes are universal, and the piece was written for theatregoers on both sides of the Atlantic. In typical melodramatic fashion, Boucicault wove in all the stereotypes of the day for this broad audience. We have war veterans, a music hall “madam”, a conniving lawyer, a policeman and young lovers. The question is: do these characters hold up to a modern audience? Willmott is acutely aware of this balancing act, the precariousness of relatability in the face of melodrama.
If the plotting seems absurd, this is often surpassed by the play’s over-the-top dialogue. “You’re quite flustered with manly emotion,” a young lover tells her partner. Stripped back from the high production of London’s largest stages, After Dark is adapted for one of the city’s smallest. The actors are forced to enact high drama and song in a small setting to a tiny audience, and there feels an unwelcome contradiction at play here. Reflecting on the show, one can imagine crowds bustling out of the theatre all those years ago, chattering about the staging – the original production made use of inventive methods to portray a speeding train and a river on stage. Perhaps it was only ever meant as a technical accomplishment and a distraction, in the same way as today’s soaps.
Tonight’s performance feels more like an exercise in limitations, working within the confines of the Finborough Theatre’s small space and employing Poor Theatre techniques. This is done through innovative means: two torches held to resemble a train’s headlights, run down the centre aisle by a figure in black; and mirrors held face-up, reflecting overhead lighting to create a shimmering river effect.
Willmott grapples with these real challenges in an honest way and makes the best of a poor deal. Largely, the actors successfully execute their intended aim, which is to ever so slightly overstep the margin of realism. However, madam Dicey Morris’s character is grating to the nth degree – further alterations to Boucicault’s script might have saved her from descending into caricature. A standout performance by Gabi King underscores After Dark’s reliance on song to uplift the audience. With its limiting dialogue and cagey characterisations, it’s in the musical moments that the cast’s talent shines through most.
Photo: Sheila Burnett
After Dark; or, a Drama of London Life is at Finborough Theatre from 13th June until 6th July 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.