The Finborough continues its commitment to reviving forgotten plays with this production of Charles Wood’s Jingo, a Second World War farce not performed since its RSC premiere in 1975.
Set in the fading glamour of the Raffles hotel just before the Japanese invasion of Singapore, it wittily examines the foolishness of dogged patriotism in the face of disaster, and the sexual politics of the wartime ex-pat community.
Gwendoline, marvellously played by Susannah Harker in as far a departure from her famous turn as Jane Bennet as can be imagined, is tired of her young husband George, who occupies an honorary officer’s rank and innocently records his impressions of the Far East for the BBC. Life takes a more interesting turn when her devilish ex-husband Ian arrives, displaying all the signs of still desiring her, as does the pompous Brigadier whose predilection for chastisement at the hands of a beautiful woman offers the play’s most wince-worthy scenes.
The cast is excellent, with Harker in particular revelling in Gwendoline’s thin vowels and thinner morals, and Anthony Howell contriving to invest Ian with almost as much pathos as caddishness. Peter Sandys-Clark as George manages a combination of vulnerability and infuriating British oblivion to cultural sensibilities, and Paul Mooney’s Brigadier is delightfully grotesque.
The play succeeds as an entertainment until its final quarter, never shrinking from painful reminders of crass colonial manners, and creating in Gwendoline a superbly predatory anti-heroine whom many a female viewer will secretly envy. The rapid-fire dialogue crackles with nicely observed 40’s banter, and the cast relish the chance to reel off endlessly self-mocking speeches. It perfectly spears the British complacency and disdain for the Japanese military that ended in humiliation, and is unapologetically contemptuous of the jingoism of the title.
But the perennial problem of the farce invades shortly before the Japanese army. The play’s admirable intention not to shirk from depicting war at its most desperate results in thoroughly disconcerting shifts of tone. I was conscience of the audience remaining uneasily silent throughout a scene in the finest traditions of farce, because the Brigadier with his trousers hilariously about his ankles was howling recollections of having been buried alive in the trenches. During the final scene of the British surrender, in which Sandys-Clark demonstrates a nuanced gift for comic timing, a young girl wanders back and forth in successive stages of undress and, we infer, rape.
Despite the excellent cast, and the production’s skilful use of Wood’s frequently very funny dialogue, the play’s uneasy suspension between farce and horror is ultimately too problematical to entirely succeed.