The Straw Chair by Sue Glover. The Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 to 14 May 2022. 4****. William Russell.

Sue Glover’s well crafted play has finally made it to London. First seen at the Traverse in 1988, when it received glowing reviews, followed by equally lauded revivals it tells about the arrival on the remote island of St Kilda in 1740 of Aenas (Finlay Bain) a young missionary minister there to bring the islanders more into line with the teachings of the kirk – they do worship old gods on the side – with his new bride, the seventeen year old Isobel (Rori Hawthorn). She has not the faintest idea of what she has let herself in for as life is harsh and although they are only there for the summer leaving depends on the weather and the arrival of the boat with the factor who controls the island for the laird. She meets a strange, demented woman who lays claim to the island’s only chair, in this production one of those high backed Orkney chairs. She is Rachel, Lady Grange, the estranged wife of a law lord who has been kidnapped by his friends and sent there to keep her out of the way. The marriage was tempestuous, although Grange did father nine children with her, when he tired of her ways – he was a rampant libertine, she was highly strung to say the least – he had sent her packing from his Edinburgh home to one elsewhere in the town. But Lady Grange did not go quietly and he became afraid that she knew too much about his Jacobite sympathies and in 1832 had her taken care of by sending her to St Kilda among other islands, places from which she could not leave. She was to die on the 12th of May 1745 still a prisoner in the Western Isles.Nobody, even her children, cared.
It is a strange tale and Glover has crafted it carefully contrasting the fate of Isobel, who tries to help Lady Grange, with that of the lady herself. The portrait of a way of life fortunately long gone is clearly drawn in Polly Creed’s production and the performances are very good indeed with Siobhan Redmond creating a wonderfully distraught, half mad woman who clings to that chair, the one status symbol she has left, a victim of the way women were treated at the time. Jenny Lee as Oona, the island woman who is her warder, manages to be both sympathetic and totally callous at the same time – she does what the laird and his factor want as good islanders do – and Rori Hawthorn conjures up Isobel’s growing maturity as she discovers sex, the ways of the islanders and tries mistakenly to help Lady Grange, a mistake which throws her own future and that of her husband into question. Finlay Bain creates an innocent lost in this world of women, a man who knows alike Oona that they need to be respected while at the same time he is falling in love with his wife. Just how well this very Scottish play will play for English audiences is open to question – these days of women subjected to men have passed but Scots still know all about the power of the kirk and just why Aenas was on that island, even if today the old rules no longer prevail. The play is a product of 1980s feminism and for that alone is of great interest. As so often before the Finborough has brought previously undiscovered treasures to the London stage with this account of the fate of Lady Grange.
Isobel: Rori Hawthorn.
Aneas: Finlay Bain.
Rachel: Siobhan Redmond.
Oona: Jenny Lee.

Director: Polly Creed.
Ser Designer: Alice Marker.
Costume Designer: Carla Joy Evans.
Lighting Design: Jonathan Chan.
Sound Design: Anna Short.
Sound Recordist: Maggie Apostolou.
Production Photographs: Carla Joy Evans.

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