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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Only True History of Lizzie Finn

"She’s very admired in Weston Super Mare. " — Jane
The Only True History of Lizzie Finn
Lucy Black as Jelly Jane and Shereen Martin as Lizzie
(Photo: Bronwen Sharp)
This is the first UK production for Sebastian Barry’s play which showed 15 years ago in Ireland. Barry writes about Ireland but concentrates on the Catholic Loyalist families, whereas most Irish playwrights write about the forces of Irish nationalism. This play opens in 1892 in Weston Super Mare, a resort town near Bristol in the West Country, where our eponymous Irish heroine (Shereen Martin) is working as a Can Can Dancer in an English music hall with her friend from Yorkshire, Jelly Jane (Lucy Black). Lizzie is a plucky girl making her own way in the world after the death of her parents who were also in show business.

Blanche McIntyre is an exciting director and by the interval we are impressed by this atmospheric and candle lit production. In the opening scene the two girls put on their dancing clothes with spangled bloomers (“man traps these knickers be!”) and make each other up with powder and rouge and lipstick in a charming set piece. Lizzie and Jelly Jane share the stage with an original musical hall act, Birdy Doyle (Andrew Macklin) who imitates the bird songs of the Birds of Ohio. He is a tour de force, a whistling magician and the rif that the play returns to every so often to give us more bird calls and guarantee a smile on your face.

Lucy meets an Irishman, Robert Gibson (Justin Avoth), a soldier just returned from the Zulu Wars whose first reaction on seeing her dance is to throw his coat over her to cover up the immodesty of the high kicking dance. Though of course this can can isn’t as naughty as the original, when the girls wore drawers, drawn on each individual leg and tied round the waist and with no central gusset. The girls meet another performer on the world stage, Colonel Bill Cody (Oliver Hembrough) and his “I Love The West Best” song is very tuneful. Robert, who has lost three brothers in the South African wars, courts Lizzie and marries her, taking her home to Ireland where his mother (Penelope Beaumont) is impossibly stiff and snobbish. The estate workers make predictions about Robert and Lizzie’s marriage and state, “She’ll never do!” So the class differences are revealed, the prejudice from the lower classes against one they see as no better than themselves. It reveals a curious comfort in the status quo. Of course the local landowners think like Lady Gibson.

There are super performances from Shereen Martin as the plucky Lizzie although it was some time before my ear adjusted to her thick Irish accent and Lucy Rose as Jelly Jane is simply heart warming. When Lizzie finds out her mother in law is also a Yorkshire woman she smiles with the excitement of discovering another like her friend Jelly Jane, only to be bitterly disappointed by Lady Gibson’s airs and graces and who insists on calling Lizzie Mrs Gibson. Contrasting with Lady Gibson is Theresa, the friendly maid played by Karen Cogan who gives a very fine comic performance. She is childlike even if she doesn’t look like a child which the text stipulates.

I was very excited by the skill of the first half but found the second half rather dull with not very much happening other than the death of Lizzie’s mother in law. I was expecting something altogether more melodramatic and the play felt unfinished. However this is a criticism of the writing rather than of the acting and direction which are very fine. James Perkins has created lovely curved seaside railings for the esplanade and all is lit by candles in glass jars. There is no doubt that Blanche McIntyre is a director to watch.

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The Only True History of Lizzie Finn
Written by Sebastian Barry
Directed by Blanche McIntyre

Starring: Justin Avoth, Shereen Martin, Karen Cogan, Lucy Black, Andrew Macklin
With: Penelope Beaumont, Oliver Hembrough, Andrew Jarvis
Design: James Perkins
Lighting: Gary Bowman
Sound: George Dennis
A Jagged Fence Production
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking to 21st July 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 29th June 2012 performance at the Southwark Playhouse, Shipwright Yard, London SE1 2TF (Rail/Tube: London Bridge)

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