Friday 10 February 2012

Theatre review: Outward Bound

Outward Bound sees the Finborough's stage configured, by designer Alex Marker, into a similar in-the-round setup as last year's Accolade, with several audience members effectively on the stage. Though why this made some of these audience members feel free to leave their drinks on the set and even, on more than one occasion, move some of the on-set chairs around, I don't know. (Actually that's not true, the occasional loud cackles and strong smell of red wine gave me a pretty strong clue as to why.) Still, it wasn't bad enough to spoil the performance. The Finborough's latest "rediscoveries" season opens with another play, like 2010's Quality Street, that was a massive West End and Broadway hit in its day and spawned multiple film adaptations, but at some point fell out of favour and into obscurity: This is the first London revival of Sutton Vane's 1923 play in half a century. (The playwright's real name was Vane Sutton-Vane, which means a nice tie-in to this week's double-barrelled theme. It also means he's so Vane, he probably thinks this song is about him.) There are some pretty obvious reasons why Outward Bound's marketability has faded, but they don't mean the production's not enjoyable on its own terms.

A First World War veteran, Vane looks at matters of life and death, in the bar area of a ship about to set sail. But Tom (Nicholas Karimi) seems to be the only one who's noticed something wrong: There's far too few passengers, and none of them seem entirely clear about how they got there or where they're headed, while the crew seems to consist entirely of barman Scrubby (David Brett.) The play's twist isn't too hard to guess but I won't spoil it, it's actually revealed pretty early on and the rest is the passengers dealing with their new situation. And they're a mixed, amusing lot - Karimi's sarcastic drunk is a fun guide to the earlier acts, and Carmen Rodriguez's vile snob has some of the funniest, vicious lines in her contempt of salt-of-the-earth charlady Mrs Midget (Ursula Mohan) and young vicar William Duke (Paul Westwood.) There's also pompous businessman Lingley (Derek Howard) and a mysterious couple, Henry (Tom Davey) and Ann (understudy Claire Redcliffe, not betraying in the least that she was a very short-notice replacement for an indisposed Natalie Walter.)

The play proves itself worth reviving, providing a lot of humour in the first half, and the lightness of touch doesn't entirely leave in the more dramatic final act, featuring Martin Wimbush as a late arrival with a crucial part to play. Though still entertaining and a natural end to the story, this final act is terribly twee and a pretty clear indication of why Outward Bound is no longer revived much. The old-fashioned feel isn't helped by director Louise Hill's decision to keep the original three-act structure, with two short intervals. Especially since the second act is very short, personally I thought keeping the pace faster would have been worth sacrificing one of the two good cliffhangers. (It would also have given a certain group of people one less opportunity to top up their drinks.)

On a separate note, although not really a problem as such, the staging is less apt here than it was for Accolade - indeed, where for that play having the audience visibly observing private moments was very much on-theme, here it's a bit counter-productive to the protagonists' isolated state. I heard people in the interval say they thought the onstage audience represented the other passengers, despite the fact that the lack of other passengers is kind of the point. Overall though, while I can't see Outward Bound reclaiming its position as a West End juggernaut any time soon, in this intimate setting it's still a very watchable show.

Outward Bound by Sutton Vane is booking until the 25th of February at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including two intervals.

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