Musty or momentous? Three forgotten hits are back on stage in London

Rare revivals of plays by Israel Zangwill, Jerome K Jerome and JM Barrie give lie to the idea that only a precious few classics deserve revisiting

One of the hoariest critical cliches is that if a play is neglected, it is usually with good reason. In fact, many plays gather dust simply because of the wilful ignorance and incuriosity of directors and dramaturgs. But under Neil McPherson, the Finborough in London’s Earl’s Court has an exemplary record in rediscovering old plays and in our age of hostility to immigrants, Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot (1908) is a classic example of a work that has acquired new urgency.

Zangwill (1864-1926) is largely forgotten today but he was a self-styled “cockney Jew” who found fame in the US and whose work was eagerly endorsed by President Roosevelt. You can see why: The Melting Pot is an unashamed tribute to the idea that America is “God’s crucible in which all the races can combine”. That phrase is spoken by David, a Russian-Jewish musician who has fled to New York and dreams of writing a great American symphony. But David’s idealism constantly comes up against reality: his first backer turns out to be a fierce antisemite and the girl he loves proves to be the daughter of a Russian aristocrat involved in the pogrom that killed David’s family.

The play raises an acute moral dilemma: whether the sins of the past have to be forgiven in order to create a better future. But while Zangwill veers towards melodrama, his play is abundantly alive. For a start it demonstrates the hatred and prejudice many Jewish immigrants had to confront: at one point David’s putative sponsor, wishing to see him return to Europe, chillingly observes: “I’ll send as many Jews as you like to Germany.” Yet, at a time when the US supreme court is reinforcing Trump’s ban on arrivals from six Muslim-majority countries, the play is a poignant reminder of America’s historic role in admitting peoples from all over the globe. Max Elton’s excellent production is alert to the play’s topicality and there are strong performances from Steffan Cennydd as the young idealist, Whoopie van Raam as his gentile lover and Peter Marinker doubling effectively as a Jewish patriarch and a Russian monster. You come out feeling you have seen a vibrant play by a dramatist who, like Clifford Odets and Arnold Wesker, has the capacity to feel domestically and think internationally.

Quarrelling strangers … The Passing of the Third Floor Back.
Quarrelling strangers … The Passing of the Third Floor Back. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Eager as I am for theatres to explore the forgotten past and to escape the idea that there are only 50 or so standard classics worth reviving, I have to admit that some old plays look a bit musty: one such is Jerome K Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1907), also in the Finborough repertory. Immensely popular in its day – though not with the critic Max Beerbohm who labelled it “vilely stupid” – it shows a mysterious stranger transforming the lives of a group of Bloomsbury boarding-house residents. To be fair, Jerome deftly sketches in the various types on display: the capitalist swindler, the heartless snob, the quarrelling oldsters and the cheating landlady. But the central scene, in which the stranger releases the hidden selves of these sad lodgers, becomes formulaic and repetitive. I attach no blame to Jonny Kelly’s production nor to Alexander Knox, who plays the passerby – really Jesus Christ in a wing-collar – with perfect repose.

But, while Jerome’s play was a big Edwardian hit thanks to the presence of Johnston Forbes-Robertson in the lead role, today it feels dramatically inert.

The idea of transformed lives is also at the heart of JM Barrie’s Dear Brutus (1917), currently being revived at Southwark Playhouse. The big difference is that Barrie – the supposed sentimentalist whom the American critic George Jean Nathan once described as “the triumph of sugar over diabetes” – emerges as far more hard-headed, as well as dramatically inventive, than Jerome. As in so many of his plays, Barrie uses the sandwich formula, where two slices of reality enclose a layer of dream: a group of country-house visitors are transported to an enchanted wood and back again. But despite all the play’s comic charm, the message is bleak and stark: that, even if offered a second chance in life, most of us would repeat our mistakes.

Hard-headed and inventive … Venice van Someren and Miles Richardson in Dear Brutus.
Hard-headed and inventive … Venice van Someren and Miles Richardson in Dear Brutus. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I have a few reservations about Jonathan O’Boyle’s production: the contrast between the dark house and the moonlit wood is not clear enough and there is sometimes a bit too much “acting” going on. But Miles Richardson as a dissolute painter and Emma Davies as his disappointed wife are first-rate and the play suggests that Barrie, excepting Peter Pan, is ridiculously neglected. He was a magic realist avant la lettre and a dramatist filled with a sense of loss and heartbreak, as in the exquisite scene where the painter confronts the daughter he pined for but never had.

Seeing these three plays made me wish that more directors escaped the tyranny of the familiar and woke up to the fact that, even if the past is a foreign country, it is one eminently worth visiting.

  • The Melting Pot runs until 19 December book here and The Passing of the Third Floor Back until 22 December book here, both at the Finborough theatre, London. Box office: 0844-847 1652. Dear Brutus runs until 30 December at Southwark Playhouse, London book here. Box office: 020-7407 0234.

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Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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