“Daring Drama! Clever Characterizations! Breath-taking situations! Aboard a mystery ship bound for an unknown port! A boy and a girl, madly in love, unmarried, seek a short cut to happiness. Follow them through the mists of adventure into a shadow world, vague and mysterious. Romance and drama – and an undying love! Outward Bound will thrill you as you never thrilled before!”
– Advertising on the trailer for the 1930 Warner Bros adaptation of Outward Bound
Outward Bound is a post-World War One work that takes on the question of what happens when we die. Currently showing at the Finborough is the first London performance of this piece for 50 years, directed by Louise Hill and playing as part of its ReDiscoveries2012 season. After several plays that enjoyed only lukewarm receptions, Vane’s unusual choice of subject in Outward Bound meant he found it impossible to entice any producer into backing the show. Undeterred, legend has it that for a mere $600 (so goes the estimate) Vane sourced actors, theatre, set – in short, everything – and put it on the stage himself. It went down a storm, and the initial word-of-mouth reviews ensured full houses during the play’s runs in London and New York through 1923 and 1924.
For Vane’s contemporaries, the play appealed to the many who were coming to terms with the social and economic fall-out of the largest-scale warfare ever, whilst mourning the more personal losses of family members. These losses caused a resurgent interest in the afterlife and led people to focus on contacting spirits and in attempting to find proof of existence beyond the grave – a famous example is the writer Arthur Conan Doyle who became involved in the Christian Spiritualist movement after the loss of a number of relatives in the war and his son’s death from injuries sustained in the Battle of the Somme. Vane’s work exploits the general preoccupation of the time by imagining an existence after death and, although not explicitly depicting death, capitalises on the interest in it by placing his characters on a river sailing away from Life towards – whatever it is that comes next.
On board, despite Scrubby (a nicely expressionless David Brett) the steward’s assertion that “There is only one class on this boat”, the passengers divide themselves up, pitting the snobby Colonel’s wife Mrs Cliveden-Banks (Carmen Rodriguez) – “I am”, she says, “very particular about my hyphen” – and rich and pompous MP Mr Linley (Derek Howard) – who is “an honest British merchant, my bank balance will show you that” – against meek, earnest Reverend William Duke and East-End heart-of-gold charlady Mrs Midget (both very well cast and played respectively by Paul Westwood and Ursula Mohan).
Outward Bound’s cosmology mingles various religious mythologies; this boat could be the boat that travels on the River Styx of the Greeks, with steward Scrubby as the Ferryman Charon – or a version of the early and medieval Christian notions of a purgatory through which each soul must initially journey after death. When they finally reach their destination, the passengers’ fate will be decided after questioning by the Examiner (Martin Wimbush). But the destination is also unclear; dissolute young gentleman Tom Prior (Nicholas Karimi) questions Scrubby, asking “Where are we sailing for?” “Heaven, sir”, says the Steward. “And Hell too; it’s the same place, you see.”
Each passenger deals with their situation according their personality; blustering MP Linley calls the group to a ‘board meeting’ to certify that they are, in fact, dead and asks if the Examiner can be bribed; young Tom turns to drink; Reverend Duke to prayer and contemplation. Only Ann (Natalie Walter) and Henry (Tom Davey), the good-looking young couple, stay quiet. As the Examiner delves into each life in turn, those who lived badly – a corrupt past in a foreign country for Linley, the manipulations of Mrs Cliveden-Banks to hide her lowly origins – and those who are worthy of redemption; here shown in the honest, loving Mrs Midget and the genuine humility of Tom Prior – are each punished or rewarded according to their dues. It is a quirk of the narrative that the Reverend Duke escapes all judgement – is, in fact, immediately invited by the Examiner (a Reverend whose ‘flock’ now dwell in the afterlife) to assist in the judgement of his fellow passengers. Are those who take the cloth in life not subject to the same criteria at the pearly gates as those who have not? According to Vane, it seems so.
It is Ann and Henry, the most elusive characters, that the film adaptation uses to promote itself – as seen in the quote from the Warner Bros trailer above – which focuses on their forbidden love, their desire for each other stronger even than death, but it is only towards the end that Vane highlights their plight, and the contrast between the pair and the other passengers. Like Scrubby, Ann and Henry are ‘half-ways’, existing in a twilight state between life and death; the Examiner has not been informed of their arrival. Will they go on? Can they go back? Their story provides an alternative to the binary Heaven/Hell choice of the others, and in resolving their undecided half-state, the play also ends, leaving the Steward again alone at the bar of the boat, waiting for his next sailing.
Outward Bound is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 25 February. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.