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The Confidential Clerk - Finborough Theatre (review)

Review by David Munro

IN The Confidential Clerk, T.S. Eliott moves away from the inherent mysticism of The Cocktail Party and Family Reunion into a semi comedic overview of family relationships but not from his predilection to include acres of blank verse in his dialogue

Eggerson, the confidential clerk of Sir Claude Mullhammer, is retiring and Sir Claude is appointing his illegitimate son Colby to take his place with the intention that eventually he can be formally recognised as his son.

Colby, whose wish it is to become a church organist, is told to keep his ostensible paternity a secret for the moment which leads to a misunderstanding with Lucasta, Sir Claude’s illegitimate daughter. Further misunderstandings arise when Lady Elizabeth, Sir Claude’s wife, who has warmed to Colby, is led to believe that she is in fact his real mother.

All is resolved in the end by a Mrs Gizzard with whom both Sir Claude’s and Lady Elizabeth’s illegitimate children had been fostered. The absurdities of the plot make one wonder why it is not sub-titled “Whose baby are you?”

I must confess I went to the Finborough Theatre where this is being revived with some trepidation. I had memories of Margaret Leighton, a young Denholm Elliot, Paul Rogers, Alan Webb and the incomparable Isabel Jeans, none of whose combined talent made the original production either plausible or remotely entertaining. I was therefor shattered and delighted when I suddenly found the play entertaining, amusing and, for all its implausibilities, coherent.

In some strange alchemical way the cast have shucked off the shackles of “blank verse” and made the dialogue sound as though it was written by a playwright rather than a revered poet. I suspect there was some judicious cutting but I may be wrong, but whether there was or not, for the first time in my theatre going, T.S. Eliot sounded natural and almost human.

Martin Bishop’s Sir Claude made one sympathise with his dilemma as to how he was to introduce the young Colby into his family. His scenes with both Colby and his wife showed him to be a decent man trying to cope with his responsibilities without wishing to cause hurt and upset. A well thought out and balanced performance which did not reveal, as a programme note indicated, that he had taken over the part at short notice.

Colby in the hands of Anthony Wilks was a decent young man trying to accept his responsibilities whilst not really understanding the reasons for them. He has a very expressive face which showed the bewilderment underlying the dialogue which made his vulnerability and strength of character real.

Antonina Lewis’s Lucasta avoided the pitfalls of the hysterical role as written and made her a nice and decent girl battered by her upbringing and trying to do the right thing whatever that may have been. Her diatribe against Colby in the second act, when she misunderstands his motives for keeping quiet, seemed a reasonable outburst rather than an audition piece of beautiful declamation of Eliot’s verse. Her Lucasta was a nice girl and one believed the ending where she and her fiancé were prepared to take responsibility for their aging parents.

As her fiancé and Sir Claude’s right hand man, B Kaghan (Freddie Huntington) had just the right air of bright young yuppy whose outward confident face hides his uncertainty and fears. Eliot leaves his future a little in the air but one felt that the character Mr Huntington portrayed would pull through.

Tamara Ustinov made Lady Elizabeth a kind ineffectual woman whose life is devoted to her husband despite her underlying grief at the loss of her child and the fact that she and Sir Claude never had children. A warm and somewhat heart rending performance which brought some humanity to Eliot’s over intellectual approach to the problem of women of her type.

The eponymous confidential clerk Eggerson was brilliantly portrayed by David Barnaby as the egregious servant willing to please and knowing just how far he can go in his relationship with his erstwhile employer. A well calculated comic performance that contrasted well with the more complicated characterisations of the rest of the cast.

This is not a production which should be left to run its course in the purlieus of Earls Court. The West End should have a chance to find out how a well acted and directed –by Tom Littler – play of Eliot’s can be really enjoyable.

The Confidential Clerk by T.S. Eliot.

Directed by Tom Littler.
Designed by Pip Swindall.
Lighting by Christopher Nairne.
Associate Director – Catherine Paskell.

Cast: David Barnaby, Martin Bishop, Freddie Huntington, Antonina Lewis, Judy Norman, Tamara Ustinov and Anthony Wilks.

Presented by Primavera in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.

Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London, SW10 9ED.

Sundays and Mondays, August 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27, 2007.
Evenings: 8pm.

Box Office (24 hours): 0870 4000 838.