Review: Outward Bound, Finborough Theatre

“It’s made me very particular about my hyphen”

Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers. One of the difficulties of writing about shows is the balancing act between trying to give enough information to give a palpable sense of a production without giving away too much of it to preserve as much of its revelatory nature as possible. Major plot points are frequently given away in reviews, especially of classics (which always strikes me as a little arrogant, this idea that because the reviewer has seen the play 60 times doesn’t mean that the reader necessarily has – I loved the surprises that King Lear held for me when I saw it for the first time last year), but then the act of writing about theatre lends itself to detailed analysis which can’t afford to be coy.

The plot of Sutton Vane’s 1923 play Outward Bound hinges on a major revelation, not so much in a whodunit sense but rather in the direction that the play then takes. It comes fairly early in the show and so when debating this issue, my companion thought it would be ok to mention it in the review, but reading the blurb on the production, the enigma is preserved and I think I prefer it that way round. But I suppose there’s then an element of me having my cake and eating it here – in not wanting to talk about ‘it’, I’ve flagged up its presence something rotten! But anyhoo, to the show in hand.

The first play in this year’s Rediscoveries season, which has previously unearthed some beauties like Accolade and The Potting Shed, Outward Bound was a huge success in the 1920s both here and on Broadway yet has languished a little since then, not appearing in London for over 50 years. Set onboard a ship and predominantly in the smoking room of one of its bars, seven of its passengers meet up as the ship is about to set sail. But as they set about establishing who’s who and what the social arrangements are, odd little moments keep happening, a strange air comes to pervade and it turns out that the voyage is not quite the one they were expecting.

The cross-section of English society presented here is given largely delightful form by the cast: Carmen Rodriguez as an upper class snob, Ursula Mohan’s salt-of-the-earth cleaner, Paul Westwood’s lanky parson, Derek Howard’s bullish politician, all provide colourful portrayals and strong performances. David Brett’s barman is enigmatically good fun as a man who knows more than he is saying, but it is Nicholas Karimi’s wag Tom Pryor who is the driving force of the ensemble, the first to twig what is going on and often at the emotional heart of the questions of morality that ensue.

As for the play itself though, it is one that has its moments of acuity and sharp observational humour, especially around the enforced mingling of those from different classes. And even if it tends a little towards the sentimental at the end, not quite maintaining the dark tone that creeps in, it still emerges as a piece of writing that deserves the attention it is getting here at the Finborough. Louise Hill’s production looks gorgeous in Alex Marker’s design which works perfectly in the space, and she works in layers and texture into the piece that helps up the tension and the intriguing mystery. The decision to have two intervals is an unfortunate one – breaking after the second act hardly seems worth it – but stick with it, this is definitely more than just a dusty period piece.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with two intervals)
Playtext cost: £3
Booking until 25th February

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