Theatre Review: So Great A Crime @ Finborough Theatre

Image by StageShots (London)

Finborough Theatre’s alcoholic sibling Finborough Wine Café has closed. While the theatre, a separate business, continues, it does mean that interval drinks are now found at the off-license next door – a bit like a Brick Lane curry establishment. But we came for the play, not the tinny…

Sir Hector MacDonald (known as “Fighting Mac”) was a poor crofter’s son turned military general of high repute and favoured by Queen Victoria. But in his latter days, he was faced with rumours of inappropriate behaviour towards young boys in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) which irreparably damaged his legacy. MacDonald never faced trial, initially because homosexuality was not a crime in Ceylon at the time, although the British soon changed that. When he was later court martialled at the request of his senior, Lord Roberts, he chose to kill himself in Paris rather than face his accusers.

The evidence for what really happened is scarce and relies on hearsay, so writer and director David Gooderson has conjectured that the man may be innocent after all. In So Great A Crime, Sir Hector is presented to us as a victim of class, bullied and isolated by the island aristocracy who create the conspiracy against him. He is also hiding a wife in London because of financial difficulties, and not because of his desire to have it away with the army boys around the world.

There are timely elements to the paedophile witch-hunt, and it goes somewhat against the media grain to ask “where is the evidence against this dead man”? As troops this year are pulled out of Afghanistan, the mention of Hector’s tour of the region is also a reminder this war has been raging a very long time. But for all its potent themes, the play lacks a didactic quality that you would expect from the Brechtian staging, instead favouring a conspiracy theory of its own, thereby shooting itself in the foot, which is ironic on many levels…

Stuart McGugan as Sir Hector MacDonald plays the innocent victim so heavily, draining the emotional content, that it’s actually quite hard to identify with him. The supporting characters are a collection of British 70s sitcom types: Dad’s Army, any upper class lady, and a Sri Lankan Manuel from Fawlty Towers, although this adds a silliness to proceedings that would probably have made satirical viewing if it were even more grotesque.

For a much crazier interpretation of the MacDonald mystery, check out The Devil’s Paintbrush by Jake Arnott – there’s Satanism in that one.

So Great A Crime runs at Finborough Theatre until Tuesday 22 January 2013. Show times are Sunday, Monday 7.30pm and Tuesday 2.00pm. Tickets are £14, £10 concessions.

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