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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
You wouldn't need a PhD to teach the students at Lingua Franca, the English language school in Florence that's the setting for this semi-autobiographical play (As a young man, Nichols did a stint as a Berlitz teacher in Florence). The men and women who teach at Lingua Franca are flotsam and jetsam from Great Britain, Australia and Germany. Their students are occasionally heard but never seen. The school's principal, Gennaro Monetti, is not particularly interested in having his staff expedite the students' fluency. As Madge, an Australian Lesbian, puts it "I get paid by the hour. Not by how fast you learn. Suits me, suits Lingua Franca, because the longer you take, the more lessons you pay for."
At twenty-five, Steven Flowers is the latest post-war wanderer to have found his way to Florence. He's signed on as a Lingua Franca teacher in order to pursue his love affair with Florence and the Florentines that began when he read E. M. Forster's A Room With a View. Not that his Forster fostered love for Florence prevents him from becoming embroiled with two of the teachers — Madge, the needy British spinster who he callously exploits for the meals and small loans she freely offers in exchange for his company; and Heid the sexy Freuilein who at 22 is too young to be held responsible for the Nazis' crimes but demonstrates that no one was too young to absorb Hitler's lessons in anti-Semitism.
Gennaro Manetti, the school's head honcho, sees to it that his teachers keep the students happy and signed up for classes as long as possible. He also finds the job useful for practicing marriage Italian style by seducing the female teachers. Senor Manetti and ex-private Flowers enliven the format of alternating lessons (entertaining variations of audience addressing monologues, with the students made audible by sound designer Will Jackson) and interchanges in the teacher's lounge with some decidedly sizzly sex scenes. More willing partner than victim of the men's predatory behavior is the voluptuous Heidi.
While most of the lessons are kept quite simplistic, with a bunch of utensils used like flashcard, Steven at one point does lead the class in some Noel Coward like music hall songs (underscoring its links to Privates on Parade). And anyone familiar with this playwright's work won't be surprised that when not focused on questions like " Is this a knife? Is this a fork?" these displaced and lonely people give voice to a lot of pithy reflections on the world in the wake of a major war and on the threshold of a future clouded by lingering hostilities, new problems and global cultural Americanization.
The actors playing this assemblage of national sterotypes are terrific. Chris New is excellent as the cynical, exploitative but passionately erudite Steven Flowers who sees the war he survived as "kids' stuff compared to what's coming." As the two women of the fraught triangle, Charlotte Randle fully captures the tense eagerness of the love hungry Peggy Carmichael and Natalie Walters is a fine counterpoint as her svelte Teutonic rival, Heidi Schumann. Ian Gelder as Jestin Overton brings such old-fashioned Englishman's virtues to the celibate expatriate who's most attuned to the uplifting power of the beautiful Roman art work all around them The decidedly non-celibate Enzo Gilenti is smooth and slick, but not over the top so, as the unprincipled school principal. Anna Carteret, the only cast member not in the company's original run in London, is aptly elegant and world weary as Irena Brentano, a Russian Jew who became an exile when she married an Italian anti-Facist. My own favorite character was Abigail McKern's Madge Fox, the no-nonsense and very funny Australian in her unfashionable print dress and ankle-high shoes (all around compliments to costume designer Emily Stewart).
Despite the excellent performances and often incisive dialogue, the first act moves along rather lethargically. The tempo picks up considerably in the second act and, in fact, ends with a big dramatic bang that's almost excessively melodramatic.
While not one of Nichols' major gems, this handsomely staged production which is bookended with a projected image of one of Florence's great frescoes, is nevertheless worth seeing for the humorous take on the inane English lessons, the well portrayed characters and the opportunity to revisit an era straight out of this octogenarian playwright's own post-war youth.
Links to other productions of plays by Peter Nichols reviewed at Curtainup:
Lingua Franca in London
Day In the Life of Joe Egg in London
A Day In the Death Of Joe Egg on Broadway (Broadway)
Passion Play in London
Passion Play in New York
Privates on Paradee at London's Donmar Warehouse