There’s a moment in After October, a restaging of a 1936 Rodney Ackland play, that made the critics in the audience collectively draw breath. “By what right” goes Clive’s (Adam Buchanan) admonishment to a journalist after his play’s mixed reviews “do you pontificate about theatre? […] You crass, impervious, clod-hopping, insensitive, sadistic ignoramus!”

Happily, this reviewer should be receiving no such phone call as, unlike Clive’s damp squib of an opening night, this production is a runaway success, which it owes to a combination of clever staging, a masterly reading of the source text and outstandingly assured performances from each cast member.

The play is, essentially, a comedy of manners which portrays the genteel poverty of a formerly upper middle class theatrical family who have fallen on hard times since the death of the group’s patriarch. It centres around Clive’s struggles to have his play staged among dwindling finances, self-doubt and a chaotic family milieu. The intimate setting of the Finborough Theatre is perfect for a drama such as this: the audience is nestled among the chintzy furniture in such a way that it creates a sense of camaraderie with the characters that would be hard to achieve in a larger space.

The pace is fast, a little too fast in some places, as the cast do occasionally trip over their words, but the overall effect is thrillingly tight and cohesive. Buchanan is particularly adept at exploring the tension between his character’s literary pretensions and the knowledge that his talent may not bring his grandiose plans to fruition. Sasha Waddell as his mother Rhoda, a moderately successful but now forgotten actor, brings a combination of sparkling wit, easy charm and nervous vulnerability which elevates what could have been a flatly comic character to something altogether deeper and more engaging. Beverley Klein as Marigold, a self-deluded lady of leisure who wrangles a bit part in Clive’s play and Josie Kid as Mrs Batley, the staunchly proud housekeeper, also stand out for their dry wit and comic timing. Even more incidental characters such as the slimy Alec (Jonathan Oliver) or sweetly confused Armand (Andrew Cazanave Pin) don’t fade into the background but capitalise on every second they have on stage.

The action itself is cyclical, with an unsurprisingly and largely undemanding plot which breaches few wider issues. But that’s not the point: what makes the show so engaging is its refusal to settle for clichés or stock characters, as would be so tempting to do. Each line, each gesture and each look is carefully crafted to subtly tease out a suggestion or unspoken insecurity. It is quite a feat to achieve such nuance with what is a brashly comic, even melodramatic, text. It’s been eight years since the play was last staged, but it was well worth the wait.

After October is playing at the Finborough Theatre until December 22.

Photo: Gabriela Brown