Writer: Dion Boucicault
Director: Phil Wilmott
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
It’s a difficult task to pull off Victorian melodrama in this day and age. The stock characters and the sentimental coincidences seem so out of place on the stages of today. And so The Finborough and director Phil Wilmott should be commended for this revival of a play first seen in 1868. After Dark: A Drama of London Life may have been thrillingly modern for Victorian audiences, but for Elizabethan audiences it struggles to be more than a museum piece.
Beginning with the inauguration of London’s first tube line, The Metropolitan line, Boucicault’s play, based on a French drama by Eugène Grangé and Adolphe D’Ennery, examines other underground landscapes of Victorian life. We’re taken to brothels and casinos, and to the banks of the Thames where ‘night birds’ ply their trade and old war heroes eke out a living from scavenging. While it’s often critical of the inequities of the time, this play does not match the depth of Dickens’ explorations of similar themes.
However, like some of Dickens’ novels, the plot of After Dark does revolve around wills and legacies. George Medhurst has married his sweetheart, the mysterious Eliza, but if he is to receive his inheritance he must marry his cousin, Rose, instead. Rose is betrothed to another, Gordon Chumley and when he starts to question the legitimacy of the will and its signatures, his investigation takes him to the insalubrious music hall run by ‘London’s Queen of Crime’ Dicey Morris and then to a refuge for fallen women.
Of course, the story is ridiculous, but as Wilmott says in the programme not any more ridiculous than this year’s Line of Duty. The actors in that TV show played it straight, but the actors in After Dark waver between playing it straight and playing it for laughs. Melodrama is so seldom performed nowadays that the actors at first seem a little lost. And because audiences see such few melodramas, the one at the Finborough doesn’t quite know how to respond initially to the exaggerated style of acting. Only Toby Wynn-Davies and Jazz Sanders seem naturals in this genre.
Arch and expressive, Wynn-Davies embodies the part of villain Chandos Bellingham and only lacks moustaches to twirl. Sanders plays Rose as a Hollywood blonde interested in the materialistic side of things. She doesn’t care who she marries as long as she gets to keep the bling. The other actors, and, indeed, the audience, take a while to warm up. It’s not until the second half that the play starts working as it should.
After Dark was originally performed in one of London’s biggest theatres but this revival takes place in one of the city’s smallest. Spectacular scenes involving speeding tube trains are rendered less so in the Finborough, but with only two moveable walls for a set, Wilmott ensures that the action is quick with scenes almost overlapping.
Because Victorian melodramas are as rare as hens’ teeth now, After Dark provides an opportunity for those who have never seen this kind of popular theatre before. If not, reruns of Line of Duty may suffice.
Runs until 6 July 2019