Tuesday, 27 June 2017

REVIEW: Mr Gillie at Finborough Theatre

Mr Gillie has not been performed on stage since 1950. The playwright James Bridie, is then an interesting choice on part of the Finborough. He was born in 1888, living in Glasgow and writing over forty plays in his lifetime, including Dr Angelus in 1947, which was also performed at the Finborough earlier this year. A high flyer in his day, he co-founded the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow and was also awarded an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University in medicine, his secondary career. He wrote screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock, was chairman of the Scottish Committee of the Arts Council, was instrumental in the establishment of the Edinburgh Festival and also made CBE. Clearly a passionate and intelligent man, Bridie made huge contributions to theatre in Scotland and further afield, with Mr Gillie written and transferred to London’s West End a year before his death in 1950. It seems that the Finborough have also showcased other Scottish playwrights over the years, such as Robert Burns, J.M Barrie and David Hutchinson, which I suppose go some way to explaining this unusual choice of resurrection. 

The action takes place in the study of Mr Gillie, the headmaster of a school in the Scottish mining village of Crult, 1950. Mr Gillie (Andy Secombe King Lear, The Old Vic) is a teacher who tries to inspire his pupils, teaching them the literary greats and encouraging them to Think Big. Well meaning and slightly eccentric, there is something of the Willy Wonka about him, which is combined by a genuine care for his pupils we see focused on his student Tom (played by Andrew Cazanave Pin). Tom’s other frame of reference is the local pit, which is soon due for closure; he later leaves the small Scottish town for London so the themes of provincial and metropolitan are played out through his character, under the guidance (or debatable misguidance) of Mr Gillie. 

Mrs Gillie, played by Emma D’Inverno (The Danton Affair, RSC and The Pilgrim, Sadler’s Wells) with a soft Scottish accent that is arrestingly good, gently chides Mr Gillie for not being more ambitious, or making enough time for his domestic commitments (i.e. their marriage) but basically she paints a picture of a loving and dedicated housewife. We also meet Dr Watson played by Malcome Rennie (The Barber of Seville, Bristol Old Vic) who is a heavily drinking doctor grieving the loss of his daughter Nelly (Caitlin Fielding), who he feels has abandoned him for new husband Tom and the glamour of London life.

There is also Mr Gibb, the vicar played by David Bannerman, who is the most interesting of the supporting characters. In a grim reaper like role he comes to fire Mr Gillie from his post of Headmaster and shuts down the school. This closing of the dream factory is the antithesis of Mr Gillie, and Mr Gibb’s word of ‘community’ is clearly a synonym of bureaucracy, the system or ‘the man’. In
this way Mr Gillie is a dreamer and a symbol of individual freedom; values that he has desperately tried to instill in Tom, who is the youth and hope of the piece. 

Due to the traverse stage I had a direct view of the opposite row of audience. Over the two hours and fifteen minutes I saw two audience members fall asleep and wake up again, twice, and I completely agree with their sentiments. The character gently circle around Mr Gillie and while the script is unarguably well written and the characters finely drawn, the subject matter felt un-gripping and totally irrelevant which eclipsed these factors entirely. With due respect to Bridie this is a great play, but of its time and the Finborough’s production does nothing to update it, make it pertinent or bring it to life. No doubt there were people in the audience who enjoyed it, so I must concede that I am not one of the Earl’s Court regulars who are perhaps the target audience. But for me a gentle trip down memory lane is not what theatre making is about; this was absolutely placid and a one way ticket to yawnsville. 

Review by Anna Williams

Rating: ★★
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