But It Still Goes On, Finborough Theatre

Review by Oliver Wake

The Finborough specialises in producing neglected plays and they don’t get more neglected than this: written in 1929 but never previously performed. Robert Graves is not known as a dramatist; if you recognise his name it’s likely for his fascinating first world war memoir Goodbye to All That, his war poetry, or his novel I, Claudius and its sequel. The Great War, as it was known, is the catalyst for But It Still Goes On, which concerns the generation (at least the upper middle-class part of it, for this play is very much confined to the privileged Noel Coward “anyone for tennis?” milieu) left damaged by the war.

It’s 1932 and Dick Tompion (Alan Cox) is a minor poet to the major writer of his philandering father Cecil (Jack Klaff, looking alarmingly like a cross between Simon Callow, Patrick Stewart and a Boris Johnson wig). Dick is a cynical gadabout who retains his fully loaded army revolver, with which he once tried to shoot himself. As the play goes on, the cartridges in the gun are reckless discharged until, at the conclusion, just one – inevitably fatal – bullet ominously remains.

Dick’s sister Dorothy (Rachel Pickup) is a doctor who, being a woman, has been taught nothing about sex but plans to marry Dick’s friend David (Victor Gardener). He’s a shell-shocked ex-soldier and gay, seeking marriage only to avoid a lifetime’s loneliness. Friend Charlotte (Sophie Ward) is also gay, and despite initially trying to marry Dick, for want of a baby, settles for his father. It was surely these homosexual themes, tackled with surprising candour, which prevented the play from being performed when it was written. It is here, particularly in scenes articulating the gay characters’ varying compulsions to attempt conformity with straight society, where the play is at its most interesting.

The surprisingly last cast of characters includes hanger-on Jane (Claire Redcliffe), who seems to have little to contribute until late in the play; Powys Pritchard (Hayward B Morse), a comedy Welshman and literary nemesis of Cecil; and Elizabetta (Charlotte Weston), Cecil’s grotesque mistress. Most intriguing is 91 Evans (Joshua Ward), the British soldier shot for cowardice by Dick. After his momentary appearance at the start, he reappears silently, haunting the rear of the set on several occasions. However, this is no ghost at the feast. Dick shows no obvious remorse for his killing, nor does he appear to perceives any ghostly presence. 91 Evans serves merely to remind the audience of the legacy of the war, perhaps representing all those who failed to return, particularly amongst the less privileged classes which otherwise fail to be acknowledged by the play.

Part social drama, part farce, But It Still Goes On is a strange beast and feels aimless for much of its duration. Finally, it ends as melodrama, with a rush of incident, including two suicides and a murder. This is undercut by its characters, none of whom truly convince. It always feels that they are saying what the author needs them to say to articulate a slightly obscure theory of post-WWI society, rather than saying what comes naturally. It’s hard to know if this is entirely the author’s fault, with director Fidelis Morgan being credited also with editing the text and providing additional dialogue.

The play does have some witty dialogue and the actors do well with parts that are largely ciphers. But as a whole the play disappoints, remaining largely uninvolving. This is no great rediscovery and whilst it’s intriguing as a curiosity it may have best left in obscurity.

But It Still Goes On is on until 4 August https://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2018/but-it-still-goes-on.php#book-online

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