Country Magic @ Finborough Theatre, London

cast list
Daniel Abelson, Victoria Gee, Jamie Hinde, Andrew Boxer, Paul Critoph, Sarah Feathers, Moir Leslie. Lachlan Nieboer, Emily Spicer, Nicola Wright

directed by
Phil Willmott
One can see what drew Phil Willmott to Arthur Wing Pinero’s fable The Enchanted Cottage and made him think it a suitable case for rescuing.

For buried beneath the sentimentality of the age, which is laid on pretty thick in places, there is something truly touching.

Written in the early 1920s, Pinero’s play concerns itself (and was one of the first to do so) with the aftermath of the Great War for those left alive: the widowed and the maimed.Having been left permanently disabled, Oliver Bashforth has moved away from London, moved away from his old life, and settled in a secluded country house where he can better avoid the attentions of his overbearing family.
Out of exasperation at their continual interference in his affairs, Oliver decides he needs a wife and proposes a marriage of convenience to Laura, a friendly local woman, who though kind of heart is not much to look at. She is, at first, justifiably hurt by the assumption that she is somehow less of a woman than the pretty city things he once associated with, but she accepts his offer all the same.

They duly marry but soon afterwards something curious happens. The couple become convinced they have fallen under a spell, an enchantment; that they have both undergone some glorious physical transformation. The truth of the matter is obvious enough, but it takes their blind neighbour Hillgrove, another war casualty, to make them see it.

Though the play has been pruned and retitled by Willmott, there’s still a good degree of syrup to wade through. The characters of Bashforth’s family and the local rector and his wife are flat as pancakes, but there are other, more interesting things going on which Willmott brings to the surface. The play is populated with physically and psychologically damaged men trying to find new ways of living. There is a strong background sense of a country reshaping itself, of the struggle faced by those returning home physically and emotionally altered. In this way, the classes have much in common, for Hillgrove’s valet Rigg is missing an arm and the husband of Bashforth’s housekeeper Mrs Minnett died on the battlefield.

But, for all that, it’s not really a play about loss, in fact it’s full of hope that people will heal each other, through love, through friendship; that England will, eventually, heal. That doesn’t excuse it being as stiff and plodding as it is at times something not helped by Robin Don’s narrow, expressionistic set, with its jags of barbed wire and moody shadows, which doesn’t give the actors much room to move and makes for a rather static staging. The central device, this idea of enchantment, also stretches things to silliness. That such apparently intelligent people would believe such a thing seems absurd, fable or no.

The three central performances help to raise it up a level. As Bashforth, Daniel Abelson is suitably bitter, sharp tempered and cantankerous, stalking around the stage with his walking stick. He seems reluctant to sit still, as if to do so would be a sign of weakness. In the original, Bashforth was supposed to be disfigured, facially scarred as so many were, but here it is his temper that makes him ugly. Victoria Gee, as Laura, perhaps overstates the gawkiness of her character initially but she successfully fleshes out a rather thinly written role.

It is Jamie Hinde who leaves the strongest impression, in a role that could so easily be utterly clichd, as Hillgrove, the wise, blind neighbour. There is something in his manner that suggests a sea of emotions going on beneath the ever placid surface: true fondness for his friends, recognition of his own loss and, again, that elusive idea of hope.

There is some attempt in the programme notes to connect the play with more recent events, more recent conflicts, but that seems unnecessary. The play is too time specific for those connections to be more than superficial, but that’s not to say the play isn’t resonant, it’s just a more diffuse resonance and, for all its stiffness and sentimentality, there is something very warm and potent about the production.

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