This rare revival is the first production of “The Beautiful People” in London since 1956 as the Finborough Theatre celebrates the centenary of the birth of Pulitzer Prize winning American playwright William Saroyan. The commemorative season runs until December this year and also features revivals of two of his other plays.
The intimacy of the Finborough is such that as we enter the tiny auditorium to the sound of 1940s America on the wireless, we feel immediately involved. The setting is one of cosy domesticity; we are sitting in a living room with comfy chairs, a piano and all the traditional family clutter. However, as we soon realise, the family who occupy it are far from conventional.
The historical and political backdrop is the Great Depression, alarmingly apt for the current climate. As most Americans struggle, finding themselves at the midst of social and economic turmoil, questioning democracy, capitalism and all the truths on which they have based their lives, the play’s protagonists represent a more optimistic breed, refusing to conform or play by the rules of the troubled world outside. Detached and eccentric, they surround themselves with a protective bubble designed to preserve the enchantment and innocence of their existence even if it involves engaging in illegal practice.
Working for a living is unheard of, and recent RADA graduate Kyle Soller puts in a superb performance as 15-year-old Owen who, a self-confessed ‘loafer’, has been well-educated to this end. Living in a fantasy world of literate mice and one-word novels pervaded by the disembodied cornet-playing of his absent brother, he is of the bold opinion ‘if nobody worked, nothing would collapse…’ With his fuzz of curly hair and unabashed exuberance he is at the nub of this ideal world, determined for his dreams not to be shattered, smacking of a raw potential which is in danger of never being fulfilled. Paul Greenwood is also outstanding as Jonah Webster, the philosophical father. Charming, charismatic, and permanently inebriated, he is caught in a world of nostalgia and celebration of life’s simplistic beauty. However, even he has a past and he is confronted with reality at the play’s end when his prodigal son (Steve Pretty) returns and his lost love in the shape of Miss Harmony Blueblossom (Elizabeth Counsell) reappears. Neither absence or return is really explained, leaving the audience to wonder.
Director Mel Cook successfully embraces the humour of the piece but deals equally well with more serious moments, for example the nostalgic outbursts of frustrated romantic ‘vice-president’ William Prim (Vincent Shiels), the drunken frustration of ‘good companion’ Dan Hillboy as he mourns his youth and the unhappy admission of daughter Agnes (Rachel Clare) that courtship is really not all it is cracked up to be in the wake of her liaison with the safely-named John.
This is an unfortunately short run with just four performances remaining; try not to miss the chance to experience a remarkably unusual, very special piece of writing complemented by some impeccable performances in an ideal setting.