John Osborne, perhaps best known for Look Back In Anger, originally wrote A Subject of Scandal and Concern for the television in 1960 – the resulting show starred Richard Burton. The production making its debut at the Finborough Theatre was adapted by Jimmy Walters (Proud Haddock), with Jamie Muscato taking on the lead role.
It tells the little known story of George Holyoake: the last man in England to be tried for blasphemy. By simply answering a question put to him at the end of a lecture, he is shunned by society, imprisoned & changed forever. The themes of the play remain starkly relevant today. Freedom of speech is constantly questioned and, in the social media age, people’s words are more & more open to misinterpretation. The influence of religion over the state also remains a concern, and can be a divisive topic in this country – considered by many to be a Christian nation, but only last week a study emerged that suggests England & Wales now have a secular majority. Though religion in power is probably more of a worry overseas, in more volatile environments.
The play takes us back to 1842, and is primarily based in Cheltenham. The stage is set up in the traverse, giving a courtroom feel to proceedings, as you imagine people in the audience as members of the jury. For props, there is simply a set of wooden benches in various sizes. These are very much multi-purpose – resembling the dock, a prison cell, gates & many other things besides.
Ste Clough’s choreography is extremely well devised – and well executed by the cast. It is a very dynamic production, the set constantly moving & shifting. A perfect example of this is when Holyoake makes his journey from Birmingham to Bristol; he walks an intricate path around, over & through the benches which are being rearranged by the rest of the company. It is a perfect use of space, keeping the eyes interested as you listen to the narration. Simon Gethin-Thomas’ lighting design also plays a big part, particularly at scene transitions, as do Piers Sherwood-Roberts’ compositions.
The cast of six are hugely accomplished – bar Muscato & Caroline Moroney as Mr & Mrs Holyoake, they all play multiple, distinct parts.
Doron Davidson impresses; initially he acts as narrator, but takes on various guises throughout (Maitland, Lefroy, Jones & Bartram), returning to narrate at the end. The change of roles is swift, making his use of accents & characterisation all the more noteworthy. Also excellent is Edmund Digby-Jones – though his stint as the clerk stands out the most. The speed at which he delivers his opening speech is remarkable!
Jamie Muscato is an absolute revelation. From the moment he enters the room he has the audience rapt. He fully commits himself to his character, pushing himself to physical & mental extremes as Holyoake’s situation deteriorates. His enactment of Holyoake’s speech impediment is admirably done, and only makes the performance more affecting. It really is difficult to take your eyes off him – and why should you?
My verdict? A powerful piece that resonates with our time – a thoughtfully conceived production with performances to match.
A Subject of Scandal and Concern runs at the Finborough Theatre until 7 June 2016. Performances on Sundays & Mondays at 7.30pm, and Tuesdays at 2pm. Tickets are available online and from the box office.