As the lights dim in the Finborough Theatre, a faint commotion can be heard coming from the corridor outside. The auditorium has become a disused building and it seems as though a group of individuals want in. Thuds at the door and voices raised, the drama has begun for this evening's performance of Magnificence.
The Howard Brenton play, Magnificence, had its last professional outing over 40 years ago and has now been resurrected by Josh Roche at the Finborough Theatre. The story is a snapshot of 1973 London; filled with poverty, homelessness, rising inequality, unemployment and industrial disputes. The play begins as we meet five young activists as they set up squat in a abandoned building - in an attempt to stand up against it all. From the initial kerfuffle on entering the property, you don't have high hopes for these young left-wingers, and that doesn't really change as the tale unfolds.
The first act concentrates on the two female characters. Veronica, played by Eva-Jane Willis, is a strong minded individual and the newest recruit, who highlights the groups lack of clarity on the cause. Willis performs with a great focus, which commands the attention of the audience. She works in contrast to the more mild-mannered Mary, played by Daisy Hughes. Their conflicting views unearth the groups differing perspectives, whilst all fighting for the same result.
The play takes a much more sinister turn with the arrival of the bailiff and policeman, played by Chris Porter and Tim Faulkner respectively, who offer up another angle. A very simply crafted scene, standing centre stage with a lone spotlight - this duo deliver a marvelous telling of their story. Being in such an intimate setting, the actors performances are seen at a exceptionally close level, which works very well to develop an intimate relationship with each of the characters. In contrast, Josh Roche's direction manages to construct an epic feel when called for, such as the tension seen in the closing of act one, where the bailiff meets the squatters in a bizarre scene of frivolity, anger and violence.
In act two we meet Babs, played by Hayward B Morse, an aging former politician, as he reflects on his life with a cabinet minister he refers to as Alice, also played by Tim Faulkner. Their scene together is a departure from the previous act, and a great showcase for the marvelous dialogue of Howard Brenton. As the actors construct a punt boat from a deckchair and broom, they perform line after line of quick wit and depth into this curious relationship.
We return to the group of left-wingers as Joel Gillman's Jed is released from prison, learning of the teams developments since squatting together. Jed has not fared well after his time behind bars, seeking more drastic means to make his political voice heard. In a wonderfully written speech, which Gillman skillfully performs, he justifies his actions through a story about a drunk patron ripping the screen at a cinema. Tyson Douglas as Cliff delivers a captivating performance in an attempt to reason with the now radicalized individual, creating a rousing argument against his violent intent. The play culminates in a tense scene in which Jed meets with the cabinet minister face to face, and we see the result of a young mind which is permeated with hate and desperate to be heard.
Magnificence is a truly wonderful production, performed by a cast of highly skilled actors. Howard Brenton's writing offers up good range characters, with very astute observations from 1973, which could certainly be paralleled to issues of today. The design and lighting by Philip Lindley and Joe Price respectively, is perfectly suited for the Finborough Theatre, with each scene being intelligently crafted around the action. Magnificence is a very thought provoking play, which has been brought to the stage in a highly imaginative way. It raises a plethora of questions, which are still relevant and remain unanswered 40 years after its first performance.
Magnificence by Howard Brenton runs until Saturday 19 November 2016 at the Finborough Theatre, London.
Photos by Tegid Cartwright