This month, The Finborough Theatre ends the 35 year absence of Ena Lamont Stewart’s Knocking on the Wall from UK theatres. Despite Stewart’s success with the postwar realist drama Men Should Weep, the rest of her work has never really entered the mainstream, and thus it is wonderful to see the Finborough raise an important Scottish author from obscurity with this oft-forgotten triptych of short plays.

Credit: Tristram Kenton

All three plays address the issues of changing gender roles and social class in 1970s Glasgow, yet they do so unevenly. The eponymous final play is without a doubt the strongest, following the story of a mentally ill woman whose sister has given up her own life to take care of her, and the resentment that colours the relationship from both sides. Matt Littleson steals this play with ease in his comic handling of Alec, the hired plumber who finds himself in the middle of this tinderbox having bitten off more than he can chew. Yet all of the characters are in some way out of their depth. Such depth is navigated with subtlety and nuance by Stewart in the final play in a way that is missing in the earlier two; the second play, Walkies Time for a Black Poodle, is a conversation between Ella, born without money but now middle-class and terribly lonely, and her housekeeper, born wealthy and now struggling. Truths are bared just too easily in this play, which in its weakest moments feels like a soapbox dissertation on 1970s Glasgow rather than a story about real people. The author’s use of voiceover for internal monologue does not help, as it both confounds the realist premise and leaves nothing to the imagination, or to the work of the largely excellent actors. I found myself wanting director Finlay Glen to let the play breathe a little more, to allow characters to pause and reflect, to give funny lines time to land, so that we could connect more closely with characters who run the risk of becoming ciphers. 

One striking aspect of the production, however, is Delyth Evans’s design; the Finborough has been reconfigured in traverse staging, with a living room set up in the middle. Sitting in the front row, one could extend an arm to comfort a character, it is so close. Cleverly, the frame of the walls remains, though obviously the room is wall-less, but this reminder makes us deeply aware of the intimacy of the work we are witnessing, not unlike Vermeer. The downside of traverse staging is that it requires each living room to be configured with the furniture and actors directly facing one another from opposing walls for the purpose of sightlines, creating more oppositional blocking than really serves such plays. Yet despite this it was a pleasure to discover Stewart’s work; though it varies in quality, it is nevertheless a strong example of neglected postwar drama that really humanises British society.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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