Review: Five Finger Exercise – Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh

Even the most genial of family groupings can feel the strain while on holiday; when the holiday is in a small, remote, cottage the pressure can build to explosive result.

Despite what Louise, the refined matriarch of the family may think, the Harringtons are a somewhat dysfunctional bunch. Louise has ideas above her status. Her tales of a French ancestry may, or may not be, wholly truthful and her obsession with high art and culture seem somewhat false. That she is married to a cultural philistine, Stanley, is a source of continual frustration to her. Instead she seeks hope in her protégée, their son Clive.

There’s something dark and disturbing lurking with this family though. Hints of something incestuous between both Mother and Son but also between Clive and his teenage sister Pamela show this is a family destined for destruction. Clive further fans the flames of sexual confusion with his barely hidden latent homosexuality.

Into this maelstrom of emotion is pitched an innocent young German tutor, Walter. Endlessly charming, Walter becomes the catalyst for many of the family’s secrets being brought into the light.

Peter Shaffer’s early writing hints at the darkness many of his later works would explore but while there’s some hint at underlying menace it’s a script that never really ventures into those dark corners, leaving the audience to overlay their own interpretations.

Richard Frost’s naturalistic production allows the family demons to surface slowly. At times it seems slightly too slow but that’s more to do with Shaffer’s early writing rather than direction.

There’s fine performances throughout the company. Ann Wenn as the pretentious mother retains her poise until the bitter end, while Holly Jones as daughter Pamela and Michael Shaw as father Stanley do their best with somewhat underwritten characters.

The true dramatic sparks however belong to Iain Ridley’s tortured Clive and Peter Hoggart’s Tectonic tutor Walter. Both deliver quiet but assured performances that provide the emotional powerhouse of the piece.

With its local connection, it’s somewhat appropriate to watch this play in Aldeburgh but, despite the strength of the production, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is a play that is now somewhat dated. A showcase for the skills of Shaffer as a writer but a showcase that never fully explores the themes he raises.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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