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A CurtainUp London Review
Set within memory of the Second World War the play encompasses some from different parts of Europe who were in conflict with each other. The Italian director of the school, Gennaro Manetti (Enzo Cilenti) tries to keep everyone happy while making a beeline for any new women teachers. Our hero Steven Flowers (Chris New, so good as Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears hails from Swindon, not at Sonehenge,the picturesque part of Wiltshire, but the ugly railway town where he has been a member of the Communist Party.
In the opening scene new teacher Steven has just been sacked for offending the Italians in his class, destroying their sense of "la bella figura", the pride as to how they appear to others, by calling them "bambini". But Gennaro needs English teachers so Steve gets to stay.
There are two other English teachers: awkward and unattractive spinster Peggy Carmichael (Charlotte Randle) and a middle aged man, Jestin Overton (Ian Gelder) who really values Florence for its museums and art galleries and beautiful buildings. Jestin is a throwback; he speaks no language other than English and in his linen suit and Panama hat embodies the Englishman abroad of the pre-war era. Interestingly Ian Gelder played Steven Flowers in Privates on Parade.
Quirky Australian Lesbian Madge Fox (Abigail McKern) finds herself being roped in to teach German and Spanish, languages she has little knowledge of, as well as English. Russian aristocratic émigré Irena Brentano (Rula Lenska), who has married an Italian, also runs some of the English classes, mainly for individuals who want conversation practice. The new arrival is a German teacher, the ravishingly pretty Heidi Schumann (Natalie Walter) who has been having an affair with married man Gennaro.
In between the interaction among the staff, we see parts of their lessons played out, the teachers engaging with imaginary students to the rear of the auditorium. These scenes often are informing the Italians about aspects of life in England but in fact serve to tell us more about the character of the teachers and their life experiences.
I very much liked the structure of the play with the tensions revealed between Heidi, as a young German, who has openly antagonistic attitudes to the English. Peter Nichols examines Heidi's relationship with the Nazis, too young to have been one of them, but not old enough not to have been seduced by them. Heidi voices the opinion that Hitler was preparing Madagascar as a new home for the Jewish race.
Peter Nichols has given us a picture of a fragmented Europe immediately after the major conflict that was the Second World War. We are told how the Americans ending Mussolini's regime have allowed the Mafia to prosper. As a docile Italian politically, Gennaro wishes he had been more active in opposing fascism. Irena has the worldly air of someone who has seen war at first hand. There are many interesting ideas in this play which will inevitably resonate more with that generation who can remember the 1940s and the aftermath before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Besides this enormously interesting picture of Europe as an emerging economic community, in a world where cappuccino and pizza are still a novelty, there is also the main plot thrust where Steve needs Charlotte's offer of accommodation. His motives are not romantic whereas hers are; he is absorbed in the lovely Heidi. Through Steve we also get this picture of the end of the British Empire. Using the images of popular coffees to represent different races, Nichols talks about the decline of English influence globally.
As ever the Finborough, punching above their weight, produce plays of interest and perception, beautifully acted, and directed here by Michael Gieleta. Chris New's handsome Steve Flowers starts as a nervous teacher worried about his job unaware of the feminine response to him. Peggy Carmichael is scary as the know-all, pushy schoolmistress with a crazy when cornered tendency, stiffened petticoats and clumsily applied red lipstick. Rula Lenska is suave, sophisticated and world weary. Her well meaning and asked for advice to Peggy is twisted out of shape by the resentful recipient. Ian Gelder is the English gentleman, Jestin, well intentioned but ultimately naive. Abigail McKern's Australian is from another continent, the outsider looking in at the old world. Enzo Cilenti is the perfect Italian, attractive to women but with different priorities.
James Macnamara's set is a simple staff room but the slide projections of Florence, the church bells and noise of the traffic convey the bustle of the Italian city. Everyone who has seen Lingua Franca will remember the Lesson One rif "This is a knife. Is this a knife? ". Apparently we are not meant to get onto forks and spoons until Lesson Two! This latest Peter Nichols' play will stay in your memory like a glass of the finest Prosecco.
Although undoubtedly Lingua Franca needs to find a larger audience I cannot see it having obvious commercial potential in the West End. The denouement in terms of the relationships is disappointing but this play has many more strands you will enjoy pulling together. I'd gladly see it again. For those of you not fortunate enough to see it at the Finborough, you may like to read Peter Nichols' autobiography covering his experiences of the same period, Feeling You're Behind.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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