As many in the nation sat down to BBC1 last night, the Finborough Theatre was packed to see a classy Edwardian Eastenders. With failing relationships, devoted and doting mothers, lying, cheating, moral colleague and reluctant baddie, St John Ervine's play echoes most of the modern soap opera requirements and provides a surprisingly entertaining 90 minutes. Irvine wrote socially-conscious plays and supported women's suffrage. In jane Clegg, he spotlights the contrasts in position and attitude in two women, Jane and her mother in law, to great effect.
This production shines with high values from the start. A lovely, slightly shabby set, subtle lighting and impeccable costume firmly place us in this troubled household in 1913. After a gentle start, the director skilfully drives the story forward and at the end left me really keen to know what happened to the characters we had seen for such a brief time. Each of them is convincing and could have appeared in further stories.
Alix Dunmore as Jane Clegg tackles a challenging part with brilliance. The long-suffering, apparently passive wife could be a bore as she has little to do but react, but she makes her a real woman showing her cares with a silent gaze or accusing look. Beautifully judged, understated work. Mrs Clegg by Maev Alexander offers the contrast of an older generation. She has a most unlikely part in her unquestioning belief in her son but makes the old woman credible with her indulgence of the children to suggest how she brought up her son. As Henry Clegg, Brian Martin is an amiable rat: his muttered "I'm weak" against his rage as his plotting unravels shows delicate control. He could be a despicable character, but Martin manages to make us care about his plight. I was pleased with the children – the young actors performed well in limited roles. They are important in reflecting their parents. Eve Prenelle captures the wild thing which is Jenny; Theo Wilkinson makes Johnny Mummy's favourite without seeming priggish. Mr Munce from Matthew Sim is a baddie with a heart and he wrings out every drop of our sympathy while hounding Clegg for his gambling debts. Sidney Livingstone gives us a delightful performance as Mr Morrison, afraid to show his sympathy yet morally compelled to reveal Henry's actions.
In an evening where the most vehement curse was "You rotter!", I was charmed by a first class production of a well-made play which thoroughly deserves rediscovery.