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Theatre Review Simplistic sense of a seasonal spirit

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The Passing of the Third Floor Back
Finborough Theatre, London

THE FINBOROUGH’S commitment to finding and performing forgotten plays means that they often unearth some gems. But whether that’s true of Jerome K Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back is up for debate.

The time is Christmas 1907 and the place is landlady Mrs Sharpe’s boarding house and it’s not a pleasant place to be. The guests, caustic and cruel, are all trying to con or trick each other, either to profit financially or simply for their own entertainment.

But the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Alexander Knox) signals a challenge to this unpleasant environment. The Stranger’s intervention is simple enough — through a series of conversations with Mrs Sharpe and guests he encourages them to find or uncover their “better self” and to stay true to their passions.

The effect is transformative and he leaves the house in a much better state than when he arrives.

There are some nice ideas in Jerome’s script about the unnaturalness of greed and the dangers of social groups coalescing around judgemental stereotypes. But the overt religious references — “a King once was born in a stable” — grate in a script which is often without nuance. The conversations between the Stranger and the individual characters don’t really appear sophisticated enough to warrant the transformations they produce.

There are committed performances from the large cast here but director Jonny Kelly doesn’t always prevent his actors from stumbling into the rather earnest and saccharine performances that the script seems to encourage.

But what Kelly does really well is to conjure an other-worldly atmosphere that offsets the script’s weaknesses, ably augmented by Jasmine Swan’s dark but shimmering set and Lizzie Faber’s evocative harp playing.

It's a play posing some interesting questions but the answers are a little too simplistic.

Runs until December 22, box office: finboroughtheatre.co.uk

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