Five Finger Exercise delivers a knuckle sandwich: Print Room at the Coronet

Saturday 23rd January 2016, matinée

We were intrigued to discover that after several cosy afternoons at the Print Room in its tiny theatre space in Hereford Road, that the founders had decamped to a much more ambitious venue – the former Coronet cinema in Notting Hill Gate.  Would they lose some of the frisson that came from such an intimate space?  Well, the space they have created out of the old cinema building is instantly appealing.  It takes a while to realise that they have used the ground floor as a trendy bar decorated to within an inch of its life with a range of antique props, leaving the circle as a perfectly proportioned mini-theatre.  The old ‘slimline’ wooden chairs are still there, with the rather disturbing addition of a free fleecy blanket each – fortunately the cold spell that must have prompted this addition had moved on by the time we visited.  The distressed state of the building is in fact the beginnings of a restoration project, so make the most of this unique space – it feels exciting even before the action starts.

We were already buzzing with anticipation at the thought of experiencing an early Peter Shaffer play, his first major success, ‘Five Finger Exercise’.  Set in the weekend country retreat of the Harringtons, a rustic cottage paid for by Stanley Harrington’s furniture business, and decorated by his wife Louise who despises his vulgar trade and fancies herself as his superior when it comes to taste.  The ‘retreat’ becomes the battleground for well-worn family conflict between the self-made man desperate for a game of golf, the glamorous wife who feels stifled by the lack of culture, a neurotic son, Clive, who is starting to drink too much, and an overly cheerful younger daughter, Pamela, who seems to have hard-won wisdom beyond her years.  Into this mix comes Walter, Pamela’s tutor, with his own terrible history growing up in Germany during the war, for whom the Harringtons seem to be the perfect family.  At first.

Disturbingly, Shaffer later described this play as ‘semi-autobiographical’, and there is certainly a sense that he had a lot of material to draw on.  On the surface, the play revels in the details of everyday life and the power play contained in the endless trivial rituals. Underneath there is a carefully constructed drama.  Shaffer has said that “Tragedy, for me, is not a conflict between right and wrong, but between two different kinds of right.”  This play certainly has this idea at its centre – there are no heroes or villains here, it is the apparent inability of each character to accept and understand the others that does so much damage.

It is easy to see the writing talent that later won such recognition with ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Equus’ – the writing is dense but not stodgy, and packed full of heartfelt emotion, imaginative flights of fancy, and a surprising amount of humour, given the subject matter. Stanley’s strenuous efforts to get his son to live in what he thinks is the real world are by turns humourous and painful, and the sibling banter gives us flashes of happier times. The sense that all the ingredients of happiness are here is palpable, and the failure of the family to find it is the ultimate tragedy.

The cast of five are all excellent, and very well cast in Jamie Glover’s production.  Lucy Cohu brilliantly portrays the matriarch Louise, her brittle emotions made visible in her physicality, and the paper thin veneer of sophistication barely concealing her apparent mission to kill her entire family with kindness.  Jason Merrells as Stanley is the perfect foil, mostly silent with a good line in passive aggression, until even he can see that action is needed.  The deeply hidden frustration of being surrounded by people he literally cannot understand is always beneath the surface.  As Walter, Lorne MacFadyen provides a calm centre and as the outsider, gives us a more detached perspective.  He portrays the depth of his character with a layered, measured performance which draws us in almost imperceptibly.  Tom Morley as Clive physically embodies a sense of overwhelming emotion, spilling out by turns with vitriol, boyish humour, and poetic vision.  It is not easy being the conduit of all the family ills, and he does it with humour and passion.  Terenia Edwards on the other hand makes a bright and breezy Pamela, whose good humour seems inexhaustible, and who at only 15 seems to have the measure of her family and its internal conflict, albeit at the cost of emotional detachment.

This production is a real treat and a chance to sample the early talent of Peter Shaffer, with an excellent cast and skillful, clear direction. Which makes us wonder if it is time for a revival from the other end of Shaffer’s career – his last (or should we say latest?) and sadly underappreciated play ‘The Gift of the Gorgon’.

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