Bury St Edmunds/Exeter.
THE LONDON MERCHANT
by George Lillo.
Theatre Royal Westgate Street IP33 1QR To 16 October 2010.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat 2pm.
TICKETS: 01284 769505.
then Northcott Theatre Exeter
20, 22, 23 October 2010.
TICKETS: 01392 493493.
Runs 2hr 35min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 5 October.
Modern production reveals new side to 18th century hit.
It could seem perverse to restore an 1819 theatre then produce a play from 88 years earlier in-the-round, with stalls boarded-over and the stage filled with seats. But Bury boss and production director Colin Blumenau justifies both in a thrilling revival which provides an intimate, fast-paced and thoughtful evening.
Actors eyeball spectators rather than making asides, soliloquies invite close attention to the speaker, isolated in period costume on a bare stage. For much of the time there are only two (at most three) characters onstage. The black floor and empty space around highlight characters’ choices – of seven major characters, three are utterly good, three turn from scheming and one is caught relentlessly in her destructive behaviour.
Though merchant’s clerk George Barnwell became the famous character (he’s the only one given two names) his going astray and conventionally moral end now seem less interesting than the woman who leads him from duty.
Millwood is motivated by money. But her conscious coldness hints also at frustration over limitations suffered by a woman, despite intelligence, sophistication and subtlety. So she uses her beauty to get money from men (other people’s in the poor Barnwell’s case) and take revenge. She’s a one-person version of the vengeful ruination plotted by Balzac’s Cousin Bette.
Finally cornered, she’s given a rare shaft of poetry by playwright George Lillo, a cry of despair stretched across eternity; “I was doomed before the world began to endless pain”.
Anna Hope’s Millwood is aptly restless, only calmed when she’s acting a part to others. There are conspiratorial glances, barely detectable, between her and Katie Bonna as her servant (a finely-judged, and spoken, performance).
Their opposite is the thoroughly good Thorowgood, who David Peart invests with the moral energy of someone sure of the worth of mercantile life – Lillo’s play was notable for making the middle-classes a subject for tragedy. This intriguing, often fast-moving story falters in Bury only with vocal limitations in the more rhetorical sections (the writing probably doesn’t help). Otherwise, Blumenau’s pacy, yet detailed direction and decent (sometimes much more) performances should ensure this play wins new friends all-round.
Trueman: Chris MacDonald.
Thorowgood: David Peart.
Maria: Sophia Linden.
Lucy: Katie Bonna.
Millwood: Anna Hope.
George Barnwell: David Walmsley.
Blunt/Uncle/Jailer: Nicholas Tizzard.
Director: Colin Blumenau.
Designer: Kit Surrey.
Lighting: Mark Howland.
Assistant director: Ric Gardner.