Were someone writing a history of theatre’s obsession with mysterious interlopers and their disruptive effect on complacent households, Jerome K. Jerome’s “idle fancy”, a 1908 chamber piece, would be a footnote. Yet, the Finborough revival, that continues the fringe venue’s glorious taste for dusting off forgotten works; a production that reproduces the original’s mannered sentiment and Edwardian whimsy; affirms the play’s legacy status. It’s part of a chain that links the likes of J.B Priestley with Dennis Potter and Harold Pinter. As a thematic precursor to better works, it’s an education. As a time capsule, essential.
The first Act will, for some, be too great an ask – the societal cross-section is broad, the register vaudevillian. A game cast, channelling the spirit of the age, weathering the harsh glare of a contemporary audience raised on more grounded fare, do much to charm us at close quarters. Jerome’s comedy of manners probably wasn’t raucously funny back in the day. In 2017, the jokes may as well be in polish. But, simply and without nuance, the characters’ class-based flaws and burdens are laid bare – a social critique that by way of snobbery, perfidy and materialism, socks it to the Gentlemen and women, now long dead, once assembled in the old St James’ Theatre.
But the other side of the interval, the first half ending so ignominiously the audience forgot to clap, the lyrical beauty of Jerome’s fancy impresses and leaves its mark. It’s a key change augmented by Lizzie Faber’s elemental harp accompaniment, a period feature that ups the play’s dream-like, hallucinatory qualities. Alexander Knox’s stranger saves the play, much as his wide-eyed, oft phantasmal boarder alchemises the best of each character, transforming them from fearful, corrupt and self-interested, into productive, socially conscientious, collaborative humanitarians with, gasp, a stomach for egalitarianism.
It may be twee but somehow Knox’s mesmerist does his work on us too, just as Jerome intended. There’s something so earnest about the stranger’s soul massaging shtick, it’s impossible to resist – it’s like being read a charming children’s book. This lovely period fable, directed by Jonny Kelly, is therefore worth rediscovering. Theatrical dialogue simply doesn’t have this melodic, poetic quality any longer, nor the unapologetic didacticism. But if you can handle it, you’re in for a curiously heart-warming evening, imported from long ago.