The Finborough theatre prides itself on showing new plays and forgotten gems, and ‘A Subject of Scandal and Concern’ is most definitely one of those forgotten gems. From playwrite John Osborne, more well known for ‘Look Back in Anger’ and ‘The Entertainer’, this is the London premier of the play, although it was produced for television in the 1960’s for the BBC.
It is based on the true story of ‘Mr Holyoake’, the last man to be tried and convicted of blasphemy in England. In this modern age it seems absurd that someone who did not believe in religion could be prosecuted and yet it happened, as it did here in Cheltenham in 1862.
For the modern audience, the plight of Holyoake is all too real, essentially an innocent man, found guilty; not through evidence, but a bias in the law, the government and society. In 2016 the laws may have changed, but I find myself asking if that bias still exists to some degree.
The staging in this piece is sublime, the limited space is utilised to its fullest, so much so, I felt like I was watching a game of tennis rather than a play, my head turning from side to side during the intense dialogue. A system of wooden frames is all that is needed to create every scene, from a domestic kitchen, to a court room to a prison cell. The frames are moved not in mechanical, functional movements, but in a carefully choreographed routine. Director, Jimmy Walters, should serve this piece up as a lesson in staging 101.
Mr Holyoake is played by Jamie Muscato, who seems to bring success to any production he appears in. Holyoake is not an easy role to play, it calls for the actor to be both confident and debilitated by a speech impediment at the same time. Muscato masters this perfectly, his use of the stutter makes it just uncomfortable enough without seeming contrived or detracting from the importance of the script.
In his courtroom monologue, Muscato practically explodes with the passion, fear and determination that only a condemned man can know, this is what makes the scene and the whole play so utterly believable and compelling.
Caroline Moroney plays ‘Mrs Holyoake’, she perfects the role and displays the frustration, despair and ultimately anger, that the wife of a man, fighting an unjust system, could not possibly hide.
A talented cast support Musacto and Moroney, each taking on multiple roles they steer the play through each scene with confidence and complete understanding of how that particular character fits in to the overall arc of the story. Particular mention should go to Edmund Digby-Jones who also also excels in a court room monologue, perhaps the only comedic element to the play, it helps to amplify the ludicrousness of the situation.
The narrator tells us that audiences hoping for a ‘solution like a motto in a Christmas Cracker’ will struggle to find it. This isn’t a play that ends with a particular message or lesson to be learned, instead the fullness of the text and the aptitude of the actors delivers the message loud and clear. I find myself enriched and enlightened having seen ‘A Subject of Scandal and Concern’, and yet again, amazed by the talent of Jamie Muscato.