Review: SALT-WATER MOON, Finborough Theatre

David French's 1984 award-winning play receives its British premiere.

By: Jan. 06, 2023
Review: SALT-WATER MOON, Finborough Theatre
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Review: SALT-WATER MOON, Finborough Theatre

It's 1926 and Jacob Mercer has returned to Coley's Point, the small fishing village in Newfoundland where he grew up to find that Mary Snow, his childhood sweetheart, is now engaged to a wealthy suitor. Still distraught by his sudden departure to Toronto a year earlier, she has no intention of indulging him, but Jacob is stubborn and resourceful. She remains drawn to him in spite of her better judgement and rationale, and he knows it.

David French's semi-autobiographical award-winning Canadian classic receives its British premiere 38 years after its debut, but it appears it's not a timeless play. Much has changed since then and, directed by Peter Kavanagh, Salt-Water Moon comes off as quite the tired shadow of a love story.

It gives Bryony Miller the opportunity to give an impressive, intense performance as her character slowly melts and warms up to Joseph Potter's Jacob. She meets his arrogant grimace with a sombre, stoic gaze that burns into him before his proximity makes her speech falter and her breath quicken. He dangles their shared past like a sword of Damocles, rehashing old acrimony between his family and her fiancé's, measuring the men's worth according to their position and valiance in the First World War.

With the tale set in the British Empire and their display of characteristic values, Jacob's rant isn't surprising, but is overdone. French tightens his grip on the sociopolitical appearance of the allegiance, reflecting it against the viewpoints of two older teenagers who had to grow wise beyond their years in the face of the aftermath and fallout of the war. Even though they ultimately reconnect and their destiny is left open-ended, it's evident that their responsibilities are worlds apart.

Mary's gender ties her fate to her choice of man. Jerome's wealth and stability would give her the chance to shape a brighter future for her children and rescue her sister from the home where she is mistreated and abused. She is ready to sacrifice her happiness, but Jacob convinces her to follow her heart. Too bad we don't even catch a glimpse of Mary's feelings for him, with the character mainly pushing back his efforts to reaffirm their relationship.

It doesn't help that Potter comes off as utterly unlikeable and pushy. He chastises her for the actions of her soon-to-be father-in-law, briefly examining the wrongdoings he perpetrated against his family as well as, to an extent, their country. He refuses to see her point of view or empathise with her struggle. It should be an epic attempt to follow one's heart, but it's difficult to dissociate their choices from the duties of the time. The piece would have more weight if Mary chose to stay and marry Jerome.

Finborough's minuscule space magnifies the angst and troubles of the pair. He has Miller rein in Potter's cocky meanderings into boyish moods in a close game of melodramatic exchanges. An iron-wrought bench painted white and a matching coffee table are the only companions of the couple other than Jacob's battered suitcase in Mim Houghton's set. They're enveloped by relative darkness while soft light bulbs connected by ugly wiring act as stars against the rounded walls. The visuals are occasionally atmospheric, but mostly average.

Kavanagh handles the actors like an elastic band, playing with the distance between them at the start, gradually joining them centre-stage with meticulous choices. The show gives a glimpse of the Newfoundland climate after the Great War, but it's tempered by a weak finale. It's easy to understand and rationalise the play's original reception, but, four decades later and in a different country with different politics, its noise is rather muffled.

Salt-Water Moon runs at Finborough Theatre until 28 January.

Photo Credit: Lucy Hayes