ALTHOUGH Jeannie may be 78 years old and a tad dated as a result, this play still sparkles with a rich overdose of humour and social comment.
Penned by Aimee Stuart, a progressive writer of her time, Jeannie has been revived for the innovative and imaginative Finborough Theatre in London’s Chelsea (Stuart would approve of the production on so many levels).
The play is set against the backdrop of Scottish conservatism in the 1930s. A society where fun played second fiddle to frugality, drink was frowned upon by many and both the church and family played key (regressive rather than progressive) roles. Men, miserable men, ruled the roosts
Jeannie – a marvellous Mairi Hawthorn – emerges from this somewhat austere and challenging environment when her widowed father (a surly but masterful Kim Durham) dies, leaving her with an unexpected bounty (£200, not to be scoffed at in 1936).
Fed up to the back teeth with washing sheets, denied the right to enjoy herself by father despite the protestations of her cheery English neighbour (Mrs Whitelaw, played by Madeleine Hutchins), she decides enough is enough. She heads to Vienna, drawn by Johann Strauss and the Blue Danube.
On route by sea and train, the 28 year old meets Yorkshire businessman Stanley Smith (a cheeky Matthew Mellalieu), off to a Vienna trade fair in the hope of drumming up interest in his revolutionary washing machine. A connection is made straightaway which continues when they arrive in Vienna. Jeannie all sweet innocence and thrilled to be abroad with money. Stanley, all charm and possessing a bit of a roving eye for the fairer sex. They dine, Jeannie is introduced to the joys of champagne, and all seems to be going rather swimmingly well between them.
But Stanley can’t help himself which results in him being drawn to the ‘blond’ (a sparkling Hutchins again) who patrols the hotel as if she means business. She in fact works in a fashion shop.
Not to be outdone, Jeannie accepts the advances of the ‘count’ (a creepy and slimy Patrick Pearson) who is as zealous as the blond in scouting the hotel’s corridors for opportunities . He is a wily old cad who is not quite what he seems.
Fun while it lasts (opera, bubbles and caviar) but it all ends rather badly, resulting in a destitute Jeannie returning to Scotland where she ends up in the employment of Mistress Murdoch (a spiky Carol Holt) who is as parsimonious and miserable as her late father was. Jeannie has come full circle with in the space of a few weeks but will someone – a shining knight with a strong accent – come to her rescue?
This is a wonderful production, directed with great skill by Nicolette Kay. The costumes (James Helps) are super, transforming dowdy Jeannie at one stage into a Scottish princess.
The changes of scene, that cleverly transform a room in father’s house to Jeannie boarding a ship (with portholes in the background), are quite inspirational given the confines of the theatre.
There is not a weak link in the production with Evelyn Adams (Jeannie’s cousin and an American staying at the hotel in Vienna) and Max Alexander-Taylor (excellent as a rather camp hotel waiter) completing the eight-strong cast.
Of course Hawthorn is the play’s star. She shines brightly throughout, capturing perfectly Jeannie’s naivety and her temporary joie de vivre at escaping the shackles of her father. But this is a play perfectly formed and performed. A near masterpiece.
Theatre company New Shoes Theatre, set up to showcase women’s writing, deserves great credit for bringing Jeannie down south and into the Finborough.
Jeannie plays until December 22.
Photos by Ali Wright