Review by Melinda Haunton
Jane Clegg is another of Finborough’s revivals. This number by St John Ervine was first performed 1913, at the height of the women’s suffrage campaign, and continued to be revived into the 1940s. It’s an issues play, tapping into the question of women’s rights with an intensely claustrophobic examination of one marriage. Sociable, feckless Henry and respectable, intelligent Jane Clegg, whose parlour is the setting for the entire play, have an ostensibly comfortable, settled existence. We know that can’t be going somewhere good.
Said parlour is beautifully dressed in the trappings of middle-class respectability, all dressers, curtains, china and ornaments. Every one bears the weight of marital hopes, now sorely let down. Jane’s mother-in-law occupies a fireside chair, interrupting any attempt at adult privacy for Jane and Henry’s relationship. We relate hard to Jane’s horror imagining the rest of her life in this stifling parlour, mending, talking to her mother-in-law, and waiting for Henry to come home.
The early scenes set out just how society conspires to keep Jane Clegg down: the ownership of married women’s property; Christian teaching; the lack of social acceptance of divorce; and more. The pace lags; the exposition rises. Stick with it, though. This is overwhelmingly a drama about power. Henry Clegg has all the legal and social power in this marriage, but it isn’t working for either party. Jane recently inherited some money of her own, which has given her a little authority. Battered by waves of cajoling, pleading and social expectation, she determines to hold on to this. We can watch the money fuel Jane’s rise to absolute moral authority over Henry, and various of his consorts. It’s a taut, painful set of scenes that should feel cathartic, but actually left me uneasy. I longed for Jane to end the play letting her hair down with a stiff gin; rarely have I seen a character who needed one more.
St John Ervine has drawn Jane more or less as a saint. After a warmly relatable start, Alix Dunmore plays her as such: patient, increasingly pained and full of dignified goodness. During the play’s heyday, Sybil Thorndike apparently called the role one of her favourites, along with Saint Joan, and there’s an air of modern martyrdom hanging over Jane. She is a woman far removed from the roll of secondary characters: aggressive bookie, spoiled children, pettish mother-in-law who did the spoiling (Maev Alexander, relishing her part as an over-involved Greek chorus), not to mention her weak husband (Brian Martin), as shifty as Jane is stalwart. It’s a relief to meet some nuance in the decent Mr Morrison (Sidney Livingstone), who at least sympathises with Jane’s values, if he can’t match her rigour.
A worthwhile revival? Mostly one for the curious, I think. The dilemmas that govern Jane Clegg are only patchily relatable, and Ervine’s dialogue is repetitious and clunky at times, despite the short running time (90 mins). But the cast is cracking; direction becomes pacey after the early scenes, and over time the action and emotion draw you in. The audience takes a side early, and if you’re never really challenged to change your mind, there’s a certain pantomime joy in watching a bad man taken apart.
Tickets £16-20, until 18 Mayhttps://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2019/jane-clegg.php