There’s something very made-for-TV about playwright and Booker-nominated novelist Sebastian Barry’s 1892-set play The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, which premiered in Dublin in 1995 and is currently receiving its British premiere under the direction of Blanche McIntyre (who richly deserved all the awards she received for Accolade) for Jagged Fence. Barry’s portrayal of love across the class divide in late nineteenth-century Ireland is a placid and pretty trite affair that offers few surprises. The stakes never feel high enough (apart from the danger of the real flames arising from a grille in the middle of the stage) and the scenes are too fragmented for the drama to become truly engrossing. The way in which it feels close to pastiche in places and the historical background is less than subtly signposted isn’t dissimilar to Downton Abbey but it lacks the campy, overblown charm.
The lovers in question are Lizzie Finn (Shereen Martin), a celebrated dancer (in the sense that she’s “much admired in Weston-super-Mare”) and Robert Gibson (Justin Avoth), a veteran of the Boer War and owner of a crumbling Irish estate, who is just as benevolent as Downton’s Lord Grantham. A chance encounter involving a flyaway bowler hat leads to Robert rushing on stage and “assaulting her with his coat” to preserve Lizzie’s modesty (a bit far gone) and making her lady of the manor. Rather than being a Pygmalion-style tale of transformation (ultra-patrician ladies concealing theatrical pasts are a well-worn trope – Julia Pargetter in The Archers, for instance), the couple are open about Lizzie’s history, Robert deeming his wife’s independence something to be proud of.
Barry’s writing is most cutting in his depiction of Robert’s widowed mother (a precise Penelope Beaumont) adjusting to her new daughter-in-law. With no qualms about putting her successor in her place (“Not Mrs Gibson, dear – it’s Lady Gibson”) and claiming not to have any objections to her personally, she claims that it’s the “simple” local people who expect all moral standards to remain the same, even though the old feudal system is disintegrating quickly. Lizzie’s savings supposedly pay off the estate’s debts, but would a dancer in tawdry music halls really have made that much money? It’s questionable.
The thick accents can be tricky to decipher and several colloquialisms get lost. Despite likable performances from Martin and Avoth, Lizzie and Robert are rather static and symbolic protagonists and comedy servants are as hackneyed as funny foreigners: Karen Cogan gives a boisterous performance as the guileless, clothes-fixated maid Teresa, obsessed with her mistress’s sequined camiknickers (“the heaven of knickers”) and convinced that it was the flash of knickers what done the old lady in.
The design is puzzling; James Perkins’s set comprises a pool of water containing floating candles and concrete bleachers lit by hanging tea lights, which doesn’t offer any sense of time or place. The horrible Lord and Lady Castlemaine also should have had a set of black clothes – eveningwear at a funeral just doesn’t look right.
Tragedy makes way for freedom and when the Gibsons depart for the brave new world of Cork, it’s heartening to think that a “dancing woman” could live happily and respectably ever after. But if Lizzie and Robert are ahead of their time, it’s because they’re the creations of a twentieth-century writer who has the benefit of hindsight.
The Only True History of Lizzie Finn plays at Southwark Playhouse until July 21. For more information and tickets, visit the website. Image by Bronwen Sharp.