West End revivals of Privates on Parade, Passion and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg over the past decade have established Peter Nichols’ best plays as modern classics. However his last London premier was in 1984, so it comes as a surprise to find him at the age of 83 opening a new play at the Finborough. Lingua Franca follows Steven Flowers, the central character in Privates on Parade, to Florence where he has arrived to teach English at a language school.
Behind shabby louvres (by James Macnamara, fresh from designing the World Cup opening ceremony) a cast of misfit teachers play out their hang-ups, combining sex with post-war guilt and loss of identity. School owner Gennaro has affairs, but only with women who ask questions; German tutor Heidi will sleep with anyone; the aging Jestin is celibate and can’t separate sex from memories of war; and Peggy is single, lonely and desperate.
The scenario sounds promising, but the reality is a mess. A high calibre cast struggles to bring a set of dislikeable characters to life. Abigail McKern is funny as an Aussie in floral dress and Blundstones, teaching her invisible students Joyce Grenfell-style. Ian Gelder is charming as the aging, avuncular Jestin. But Charlotte Randle tackles the underwritten Peggy by turning the volume up beyond pub theatre levels, and Rula Lenska is wasted, hovering in the background as Russian-Jewish widow Irena.
The real problem is the uneven writing, with some stand-out passages and good jokes but too many fundamental problems. Chris New, as Steven, delivers a gripping speech on his disillusionment with the Edwardian Florence of A Room With A View, with its prissy upper middle class characters who stood by while the First World War happened and fascism arrived. He points out that there was “no Pan prancing through the fields, there was Il Duce”. However, he’s also self-centred, cruel, immature, and almost entirely unsympathetic. It’s hard to see why we should take him seriously. But at least he’s not Heidi, played by Natalie Walter as an ‘Allo ‘Allo mädchen in national costume and a bad accent. Her comic Holocaust-denial scene is ill-judged. The play’s rampant stereotyping of Italians, Germans, Australians and English, amongst others, may make a point about loss of national identity, but it renders the play crude, melodramatic and unconvincing.
Lingua Franca is at the Finborough Theatre until 7 August, tickets £15
By Thomas Bolton