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Saturday 29th November 2008
Theatre Review | THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE | Finborough Theatre

The Finborough theatre is currently celebrating the centenary of American author and playwright William Saroyan’s birth with a season of his plays, culminating in The Time of Your Life (1939), his most successful work and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Astonishingly, Icarus Theatre Collective brings twenty-six actors to the tiny finborough – making for a crowded curtain-call – and proving once again that fringe theatre can be as ambitious as any subsidized warehouse.

Considering the sheer number of friends and relations who will be descending on a few rows of seats over the next month, you might want to book as soon as possible for this fascinating American play. It is set in a seedy waterfront bar in Fresno, California, one of those mythic American dives: the Western saloon, the jazz joint, the diner – all the way up to TV’s Cheers. Nick’s bar is the Last Chance saloon, where lost souls go to keep each other company. There is Joe (Alistair Cumming), the rich slacker with a questing spirit, quaffing champagne like it was a vocation and his minion Tom (Matthew Rowland Roberts), an innocent boy in a man’s body. Then there is Kitty Duval (Maeve Malley-Ryan), a noble girl who life has driven to sell her body on the streets, and rough diamond Nick (Brett Findlay), the bar owner.

The template is indeed the Western, one of the best myths America ever had, but without the wide horizons. Instead, there is unrest on the waterfront outside and a world war looming. The only wide horizons these dreamers have are in their heads. It is a softer, less gritty work than the post-Mamet world would expect, with a sentimentality which critics have disparaged. Yet it is no less American than an Elia Kazan movie or a Mamet play; the energy, the humanity, the yearning for innocence all still speak eloquently to a modern audience.

Director Max Lewendel and designer Christopher Hone have put circular bar tables in the centre of the square finborough playing space with a high bar and jukebox facing each other on two sides of the square and the audience divided on the other two. This is an unhappy staging. Large chunks are played with the actors’ backs to one side of the audience, particularly that of Joe, the lead character. I saw more of the back of his head than I ever saw of his face. The little bar stools scattered around for the audience to sit upon are also a nice idea that don’t really work. Some fetching Tiffany-style table lamps only block our view, and the actors never acknowledge us as fellow drinkers at Nick’s bar.

The acting, however, is full of gusto, pumping vigour into a fairly verbose play. All of the acting impresses – and many of these actors are young and inexperienced – but the most convincing actors are those who bring the quiet fluency of film acting to their parts. Brett Findlay’s Nick the bar-owner is wonderfully natural and Payman Jaberi’s Arab, a monosyllabic regular propping up the bar, lost in his own melancholy, is extremely good. Jack Baldwin, too, as longshoreman McCarthy, a blue-collar intellectual straight out of the work of Jack Kerouac, grasps the play in his brief scene.

In fact, intimations of Kerouac, of a Beat philosophy of truly living the moment, abound in the play, suggesting that The Time of Your Life was in fact way ahead of its time. A wacky, but nonetheless impressive, performance by Omar Ibrahim as Harry, a would-be comedian trying to get a gig at the bar, includes a series of deliberately un-funny stream of consciousness monologues which are dead ringers for Allen Ginsberg's outpourings many years later.

The Finborough has, yet again, made a strong case for itself as one of the very best fringe theatres in London.

Claire Ingrams © 2008

  • The Time of Your Life runs at the finborough theatre until 20 December 2008.

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