Concerning the true story of the last man to stand trial in England in the 1800s for blasphemy, John Osbourne’s A Subject of Scandal and Concern is an hour-long examination of the incarceration of one George Holyoake (ably played by Jamie Muscato) and his testimony during his trial. This production at the Finborough Theatre deals with themes of the truth in the face of adversity and the role of the state in policing the thoughts of the populace. A fairly cerebral piece, director Jimmy Walters brings the best out of a play perhaps lacking in some areas.
The play was originally scheduled for television. Perhaps it is because of this that, despite the interesting theological and intellectual debate on show, A Subject of Scandal and Concern fails to fully examine the relationship between our atheist protagonist Holyoake (ironically pronounced Holy-Oak) and his wife Mrs Holyoake (Caroline Moroney). As a result I left feeling unsure as to how Holyoake’s situation had really affected his family. Despite this, the production is an interesting one and some of the discussion around the central themes definitely creates the drama and tension necessary for this sort of play.
The acting ability throughout is solid, with the aforementioned Muscato picking up steam, and Edmund Digby-Jones as a plethora of deliciously sinister characters. The actors approach their task with relish, and there are some excellently performed speeches throughout. In the same vein, the staging of A Subject of Scandal and Concern is well thought out, a handful of benches creating everything from kitchen worktops to barred jail cells. The production team have made the most out of what is a fairly cramped stage, and at one stage five actors manage to fit comfortably in a space that is not much larger than my living room. The only slight negative from the backstage perspective is the lighting. The stage could perhaps do with a slightly more menacing tone, particularly during the grim proceedings of the jail and court scenes, though this is a small flaw that’s easy to forgive.
I’d recommend A Subject of Scandal and Concern. It won’t leave you walking out of the theatre in tears, and there’s not really a whole lot to laugh about, but if you’re a fan of Orwell it’s definitely in the same family. You just replace Stalinist pigs for non-secular government. And if you combine those two together, you realise this play is still as relevant today as it was in 1860.