Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Theatre review: But It Still Goes On

I think most theatres wore out their commitment to commemorating the First World War in 2014, so it hasn't dominated programming in the centenary of its final year like it did in the first. But the Finborough is still committed to its THEGREATWAR100 strand, and Millennials feeling under constant attack from their grandparents' generation might take some small comfort from But It Still Goes On, in which even those who fought in the trenches are regularly dismissed as feckless wasters. In fact there's a strong feel of "it was ever thus" to much of Robert Graves' play. Best known for I, Claudius, which due to a sacred rule of comedy I have to pronounce "I, Clavdivs," Graves was commissioned to write the play in 1929 but it was never produced - possibly because the producers of Journey's End were expecting a similar story of life in the trenches, rather than one of how the survivors have to move on with very little help from those they fought for.

More likely, they weren't expecting a story that revolves so heavily around gay men and women and the practice of bearding and shelved it, which makes Fidelis Morgan's production a world premiere.

Dick (Alan Cox) is a poet and novelist who fought in the War, who had some success with an early novel but will always be overshadowed by his bestselling author father Cecil (Jack Klaff.) Dick and his sister Dorothy (Rachel Pickup) both have good friends of the same sex who are in love with them, and who decide to marry the sibling to keep their sexuality secret. But where David (Victor Gardener) proposes to the smitten Dorothy under false pretences, Charlotte (Sophie Ward) attempts to be honest with Dick, admitting that she's a lesbian who only wants to marry him because of society's pressures. He doesn't take it well, and in revenge Charlotte ends up marrying his overbearing father instead.

But It Still Goes On is a strange play that's mostly successful despite taking some very dark issues and throwing them into the format of a drawing-room comedy. And it is often very funny, with a fun performance from Charlotte Weston as Cecil's mistress, a surreal subplot in which Dick convinces his father a rival poet is trying to kill him, and a rather telling running joke about the strange half-way place Dorothy occupies as a female doctor in the 1920s: Fully-qualified but oddly naïve, her medical school lecturers were embarassed about having women in their classes for the first time and left certain crucial elements out, so "she knows where babies come from, just not how they got there."

But as well as a sympathetic attitude towards gay men and women having to deceive friends to fit into society, the play is also very cutting about that same society's dismissal of PTSD and survivor's guilt. David is thrown into a terror by the sound of gunshot, but it's Dick whose every moment seems defined by the War even as his father dismisses the experience offhand: He's literally haunted by the ghost (Joshua Ward) of one of his own men whom he shot when, shellshocked, he wouldn't join the battle; and the title comes from his disconnect from the world, which he sees as carrying on in denial of the fact that everything has ended. The play's mix of styles and themes sometimes trips it up, but all in all it's well worth dusting off for its premiere, nearly 90 years late.

But It Still Goes On by Robert Graves is booking until the 4th of August at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander.

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