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Review: Five Finger Exercise, The Playhouse, Cheltenham

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: April 04, 2014

By Simon Lewis

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The Harringtons – an everyday story of a family at war. An explosive powderkeg waiting for someone to strike the decisive match. Inevitably, that someone obliges, albeit unwittingly.

The mismatched Stanley and Louise Harrington are a couple in marital meltdown. If that’s not all, they also have two dysfunctional children; son Clive, whose relationship with his pretentious, arty mother, a Parisian free spirit, borders on the oedipal, and volatile daughter Pamela, whose frustrated longing for her father’s love is redirected into a near-incestuous affinity with her brother.

Into this turbulent vortex steps a well-intentioned refugee from Nazi Germany, whose presence merely aggravates the toxic atmosphere. From the very outset, the tension is palpable, as the battle lines are rapidly drawn in a rural Suffolk cottage during the late 1950s.

The title is both literal and symbolic; genial, but tormented, Walter Langer is hired to teach young Pamela to play the piano, and those eternal scales are soon annoying her morose, philistine father, who cares for little beyond his furniture business, especially keeping up with the cultural Joneses.

Away from mastering the keyboard, however, all five individuals seek vainly to function as a coherent unit, and the resulting music is disharmonious in the extreme.

Effectively, this is a dark, countrified kitchen sink tale with no plot; it’s merely the portrayal of a web of strained relationships between the five characters who briefly appear altogether only at the show’s grim climax.

Yet I defy you not to become inexorably drawn into this intriguing, if unsettling, period piece, as the unhappy Harringtons and their equally tortured visitor head for tribal Armageddon.

Displaying parallels with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Peter Schaffer’s rarely performed, semi-autobiographical drama received a splendid workout under the sensitive guidance of guest director Richard Elgood.

Singling out individual performances, however, in a cast whose every character is strong and real seems unfair; ultimately triumphant here are the Patesian Players themselves, whose collective talents continue to augur well for this blossoming troupe which fully deserves its berth at Cheltenham Playhouse.

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