IN BRIEF Creative staging of this bustling Victorian melodrama helps it rattle along, making a jolly romp of its labyrinthine plot.
With more plot lines than the current Tube map has colours, it’s a wonder that bustling 1868 melodrama AFTER DARK has stood up as well as it has, in large part thanks to Phil Wilmott’s inventive and jaunty production.
Writer Dion Boucicault (London Assurance, The Octoroon, The Shaughraun, etc) has adapted a French play which embraces much of London’s variety, stuffing the stage with incident, in scenes including an underground station, a music hall, the slums of Rotherhithe, to the icy Thames itself and much more. Well-spotted lighting and exciting moments of visual invention (which almost all come off very effectively) are highlights which partly compensate for the creaky, heavily-wordy script.
Opening with another opening, of the first London Underground Railway, in a clever sequence which prefaces the rest of the story, AFTER DARK steams into its plots of love frustrated, mixed-up marriages, fortunes and disgraced nobility; asides to the audience and descriptive speeches about events offstage abound in the time-honoured tradition.
A brief untangling of the plot? Eliza is the daughter of an ex-soldier who now lives on the streets and her mother is in the workhouse. Surviving as a maid, she has married George under an assumed name. George is the son of nobility, brought low by gambling and drink at the hands of gambling den and music hall owner Dicey Morris (“Queen of Crime”). George’s forged signature on his father’s cheque proves ideal blackmail fodder for Dicey and her partner in crime, crooked lawyer Chandos Bellingham. With George’s father just deceased, a title and a large inheritance is in sight, but stipulations in the will mean that there are many twists ahead for everyone (including villainy, heroics, near-suicides, druggings and deceptions) before the final curtain.
Woven into the play’s colourful fabric are ex-soldiers down on their luck (brief social comment here), incognito maids, music hall girls in a state of expectancy, the Salvation Army and various victims of gambling and drink (mostly at the various establishments of Dicey)
Lightening the conveyor belt of revelations and deceptions, some cleverly-conceived visuals are wisely spotted at the opening, act one close and finale. The first act curtain scene where Eliza throws herself into the Thames is created skilfully by the cast with a series of mirrors, picturing both above and below water, allowing for an heroic “nick of time” rescue.
The majority of the cast play this specialised, fragile material well. Standouts in the cast are the two villains; Victoria Jeffrey plays with relish as Dicey – living up to her name, peppering her gutter chat with amusing high-falutin’ malapropisms. She makes a great sparring partner for reptilian Chandos, played with equal lip-smacking fervour by Toby Wynn Davies. Jemima Watling underplays most successfully as the hard-done by Eliza, emphasising her heroism and selfless devotion for her lover who is promised to another, earning the audience’s affection. Praise, too, for the skilful musical trio in the cast who provide tuneful renditions of the music hall songs (some with a distinct edge) and other well-timed musical interjections.
Shunting this large cast (of 12) on and off the Finborough’s tiny stage is a real issue here, and I do feel that the mechanics of this small space have impacted on the pace of the show; it feels like it needs more of a head of steam to keep it chugging along. Having said that, the simple but hugely effective set of two brick arches on trucks are moved into every conceivable position and work very well, a clever design by Hannah Postlethwaite, especially effective when two characters weave through the alleyways of Rotherhithe, the arches move and twist to create unending tight, dark, populated corridors. Lighting, too, is often creative and well-used, vital in this small space, and the smattering of dry ice to conjure up foggy Old London Town works well, though it’s rather missed in the second act when the action moves to Hammersmith, the pace sags a little, and the darkness recedes for a while.
And so to the finale, “a climax of villainy”, and a rescue from death on the Underground rails which cues a veritable queue of revelations, unmaskings and comeuppances bringing the requisite happy endings to all (including the villains) and topped off by a rousing rendition of Rule Britannia, led by Britannia herself. Huzzah! So it’s three cheers for this enjoyably tongue-in-cheek AFTER DARK! And three stars.
AFTER DARK plays at The Finborough Theatre until July 6th. Information and Tickets here