Review: Lingua Franca, Finborough Theatre

“They can have us spooning and forking any time between breakfast and bedtime”

Continuing the 30th anniversary celebrations at the Finborough Theatre is the world premiere of a new play by Peter Nichols, Lingua Franca. The play is set in 1950s Florence, where Flowers gets a job teaching English at Lingua Franca, a shambolic language school housing a ragbag collection of individuals from across the globe, all struggling to come to terms with a new society in a Europe no longer at war, whilst luxuriating in the Florentine cultural bounty all around them. The programme informed me that the lead character Steven Flowers is also in one of his earlier plays, Privates on Parade, it made no difference to me not having seen that but there’s a neat bit of casting in that Ian Gelder who appears here in a different role, played that character in the original RSC production.

At the centre of the story is a love triangle of sorts: once Stephen has become accustomed to his new way of living, he throws himself into a life of gay abandon, whipping his classes up into a raucous frenzy of singalongs and chants as a different way of learning and having already caught the eye and rapt attention of repressed and depressed English Peggy, launches headlong into a passionate, physical affair with German Heidi. As Stephen, Chris New brings a wonderfully warm charm which makes it easy to see why so many women fall for him and plays the darker, crueller streak that comes as he ruthlessly pursues his sexual urges at the expense of all else equally well.

Charlotte Randle’s Peggy is highly strung from the word go and whilst a strong performance, her false bonhomie masking a world of pain and tiredness of rations, I felt she could stand to dial it down a little to start with, it was a little too shouty from the outset in the small space of the Finborough and left little range for her to go to. And whilst Heidi is a fascinating character, as a child she was part of the Hitler Youth, she’s not really given enough emotional range and so Natalie Walter has to work hard to make us care for her.

Elsewhere in the motley crew of language teachers are the turbaned Rula Lenska as Russian Jew Irena with a deliciously dry accent and and Abigail McKern’s Australian Madge who frequently steals the show with her language lessons, managing the not inconsiderable feat of teaching both German and French in a broad Aussie accent to hysterical effect. Enzo Cilenti’s Italian school manager was also nicely observed, constantly picking up English colloquialisms and rolling them around with an excellently consistent accent and Ian Gelder brings a beautiful tenderness to his ageing academic, having lived through two world wars but still with something to learn about life.

Bringing together such a diverse group allows Nichols to work in some nicely contrasting post-war viewpoints: different nationalities and different ages have a wide-ranging spectrum of opinions on life after the war and vastly different experiences. There’s desperation that life still isn’t that much better, there’s deep-seated xenophobia and the distrust of other nationalities and their little quirks, there’s emotional constipation, and whilst we’re in a post-war context, it is neatly suggested that the war merely serves as a cover for many of these prejudices. The headlong pursuit of sexual freedom didn’t play quite as big a role as I had thought and I’m not sure precisely what the point was there, but it was still a fun thread to follow.

As a second preview, it was a remarkably accomplished performance by all. The lighting is impressively done but there are a few issues that still need ironing out, mainly around the finale to Act 1, the different aspects of which need to be more tightly drawn together and some of the comic beats need to be hit a bit more firmly but that rhythm will surely come by opening night. For me, Lingua Franca was a little bit of a tragicomic treasure, winningly performed by a brilliantly cast ensemble, nicely quirkily funny in the right places and yes, a little flawed, but all the more intriguing for it.

Running time: 2 hours
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 7th August
Note: there’s some smoking and some use of strobe lighting

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