Natural Inclinations give rise to a terrific evening

Review by Paul Nelson

IT IS enormously refreshing these days to hear a play that not only flatters one in that it assumes one has a brain, yet further flatters one in that it assumes one uses it. Natural Inclinations is just such an evening.

It is a first play, so before anyone takes out their long knives I suggest they go and try writing one for themselves. These days more than at any other time, it seems to me that has to be a daunting proposition. In addition, it is written by an American, and what is unusual about that, is it is unexpectedly and decidedly British. It captures our idiom.

The subject is James Boswell, biographer of Samuel Johnson, and it presents the agonies he went through in order to quieten the desires of the flesh.

In reality, these desires must have been quite difficult for him to suppress. He caught gonorrhoea no less than seventeen times, had ideas above his station in that he wanted to marry English aristocracy and settled for his cousin Margaret, a Scottish woman who gave him seven offspring.

The play, however, takes a more romantic viewpoint and has James pursuing an ideal (Margaret) while at the same time pursuing his love for the high life.

In fact as soon as he saw London he went at it like a bull at a gate, and the brothels and coffee houses held him spellbound to the extent that he returned to London over and over eventually settling in the city.

Unabashedly star-struck, he also sought out the company of anyone famous and when he eventually wangled a meeting with Samuel Johnson, his admiration was such that he literally took down almost every word the man uttered - but I digress.

The play gives a picture of a tortured young man, tortured that is, by the pangs of love and not necessarily solely by uncontrollable flesh. It also takes the audience through an incident which I am unable to verify, that he took on a wager regarding Margaret's virtue. In the play decency prevails and he reneges on the wager but not before being roasted by both his accomplice, the Earl of Eglinton for his weakness and posturing, and his father for not being man enough to face his future, or his past for that matter.

There is a magnificent scene during which he has a nightmare, we later learn, which confronts him with all the ghosts of his profligate sexuality.

It is a refreshing evening in the theatre and guess what, something I thought I would never see again in a modern play, it has a happy ending. The audience was filled with beaming faces. For that alone, I say well done.

The play gives a lot of spare rope to the cast and they thoroughly enjoy paying it out.

As the arch courtesan Leonora Donne, willing to show any virgin the way to intrigue the male sex, Kristin Milward glistens with venomous seduction. The Earl of Eglinton too is a vile charmer, and in the powerful hands of Oliver Senton can chill the spine as well as fascinate. You don't mess with this dandy.

The devoted Margaret, unfortunately a chocolate box creation with no real spine until surprisingly in the nightmare sequence and the play's denouement, is given a sensitive performance by Megan Fisher. The actress has a quiet power, though she and her role need to be realigned. Nevertheless, she commands her audience well and gives a more than satisfactory performance.

As Boswell, Simon Muller is, well, stalwart is the word that comes to mind. With his Prince Harry tousled hairdo, his trick of showing sensitivity, rather like the young Dirk Bogarde showing the white of the eye below the pupil, and a sincerity that anyone would cross a busy motorway for, he holds the play and its plot together rather more than it deserves.

The director, having proved himself in more glorified places than the Fin, needs to take a hard look at why the evening, though entertaining, is not more satisfying. It is good, but oddly incomplete.

The coup of the evening however, belongs to Ralph Watson in the two roles of Boswell's father Lord Auchinleck, a Scottish judge neither you nor I would trust, and Samuel Johnson.

The infant Johnson was put out to a tubercular wet nurse, and all the subsequent pain and deformities are presented by this actor, naturally using a midlands accent, with such a marvellous degree of panache that the audience was extremely disappointed that he and the cast did not return to the stage for further curtain calls at the end of the evening. Watson's performance is well worth it. Seek out this actor. He is a rare breed.

I have a qualm or two about the raked setting. In a small house with a tall actor, the rake and actor's frame easily manage to blot out a lot of the action. On the other hand it has been a long time since I have seen a Fringe production so handsomely dressed with costumes bordering on Shaftesbury Avenue quality.

In general I would urge you to go to see this play. It complements your intelligence, it is delightful to look at and a joy to hear. It is also one of the few plays you will see that is almost entirely underscored with music specially composed for the event and beautifully played. This does so much to recreate a period of an England past, and whoever thought up the idea deserves a special award along with the composer.

In spite of my own misgivings, I cannot see any audience being disappointed.

Natural Inclinations by Roger Kirby. Directed by Steven Little, Designed by Nicolai Hart-Hansen, Costume Design by Mia Flodquist, Lighting by Kristina Hjelm, Music by Lucy Melvin, WITH: Simon Muller (James Boswell), Oliver Senton (The Earl of Eglinton), Ralph Watson (Lord Auchinleck), Ralph Watson (Samuel Johnson), Megan Fisher (Margaret Montgomerie), Kristin Milward (Mrs Leonore Donne), Lucy Melvin (musician), Jane Watkins (musician). Produced by Concordance at The Finborough Theatre, Finborough Arms, Finborough Road, Fulham SW10. Tickets 020 7373 3842.

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Pictures by Marilyn Kingwill.