In the programme for his production of Five Finger Exercise, now playing at Notting Hill’s Coronet Theatre, director Jamie Glover confesses:

For years I have harboured an admiration bordering on obsession for Peter Shaffer’s first major success, Five Finger Exercise…its first hugely successful run in 1958…heralded the arrival of a writer of enormous intellect and emotional perspicacity…the encounters…are no less devastating, they are in a domestic setting and in a minor key. Walter Langer’s arrival in the house of the Harrington family is the catalyst for an upsurge of latent prejudices and casual, lacerating cruelties that spring not from history books or the newspapers, but from a home just like those of the audience…what is remarkable, even from a distance of nearly 60 years, is how much it has in common with plays from across the pond…It has an emotional velocity and heft. It is gnarly and ugly. To me it feels very ‘Un-English’ indeed…

Glover is spot on in some respects, but Five Finger Exercise is very English in terms of content and form, its characters reflect state-of-society norms and conventions of the time and while there is a lot of talking, much is unsaid. The way they speak at length but simultaneously fail to communicate, leaving truths unspoken and giving air to whole or partial untruths, refuse to face their real feelings and opt for what they think is “appropriate” rather than just – these traits reveal the very English nature of the characters. The arrival and non-acceptance of a foreigner in their midst brands them as extremely English, both for the period in which the play is set (the post-WWII Fifties) and for today, when it is being seen.

Peter Shaffer’s plays are full of startling observations about human nature, incisive dialogue which leaves characters bruised and shaken and, often, lyrical passages of great beauty which expose raw nerves, hidden yearnings or wishful thinking. Five Finger Exercise is no exception.

Set in the country house of the Harrington family, the play charts the events of a few days. Louise has decided to invite her daughter’s tutor, Walter, a tall, strapping German immigrant, to live with the family. She says that it will be for the benefit of Pamela and her studies but her motives seem murky to say the least. Dad Stanley goes along with his wife’s demands for the sake of a quiet life: a self-made man, his furniture business pays the bills for everyone. Stanley likes to think he is the authority figure in the family, but it is Louise’s word that rules the Harrington roost.

Pamela is bright, easy-going, slightly tom-boyish but not much of a student. Whether she has a crush on Walter is unclear, but she likes him and she sees that he likes the family and enjoys the sense of belonging that comes with being a live-in tutor. Walter keeps his cards to his chest, is sweet and endearing, and tries hard to show his respect and thanks for his place at the family table.

The eldest Harrington child, Clive, is, at first, opposed to the idea of Walter living in the house. Quite why is never really clear. Clive is a somewhat spoilt child, the product of an over-indulgent mother and a querulous father who disapproves of him undertaking anything but the most manly of activities. Stanley loathes the arty people with whom Clive mixes and seems fearful that Clive may never marry. Or worse.

Shaffer sets the five characters up and slowly but surely up peels them bare to reveal their true natures. Tension mounts admirably as the five dance around each other and their true feelings.

Walter discovers that honesty can be repaid in derision and scorn; Louise learns that not everyone will do what she wants; Pamela misses nearly every matter of importance and is rewarded by being kept in the dark; Stanley asserts his authority but then realises he has backed the wrong horse; Clive petulantly mis-states and entirely mis-reads the likely fallout from his falsity causing himself – and others – unnecessary pain. For every Harrington, dishonesty and self-interest shatters the warm cocoon of their family life. For Walter, the stranger in a strange land, honesty and innocence is ripped away and the new family he found so nurturing and safe tears him apart.

Shaffer’s writing feels modern and freshly minted. The play may be set in a time and a world that has ended, but the words, feelings and emotions encapsulated in them ring fresh and true. Versions of Walter and versions of the Harringtons are, no doubt, interacting at places all over England. This undertow of universality, together with acuity of character and dialogue, is what makes Five Finger Exercise a great play.

Despite his avowed admiration/obsession for the play, or perhaps because of it, Glover does not produce a version of the play that soars as it should. At best, his production is adequate, but it fails to engage with the bigger questions and the emotional and sensual high points are, too often, skipped over or brushed past. True, the great shock towards the end of the play is not fore-shadowed, so its effect is striking. But, in other key respects, potent and highly charged passages drift by.

There are really three key characters in the play – Walter, the immigrant tutor looking to bury his past and find a future; Louise, the sultry, sensuous and hungry-for-attention mother, wants her every need fulfilled but is denied; and Clive, the pampered spoilt child of Louise, doesn’t know what he wants but thinks other people shouldn’t have what they want if he can’t. Stanley and Pamela are important, their actions and reactions shape the feelings and existence of the other three, but they are not pivotal.

But the play can’t work at anything like its proper potency without the central three characters being played with exceptional skill. Here, Glover has, at best, only two of the three, and this fatally undermines the overall effect of Shaffer’s play.

Lorne MacFadyen is quite marvellous as Walter. His accent is perfect and he masterfully conveys the sense of loss and grief that defines Walter while, at the same time, opening up the honesty and simplicity of his soul which is enriched by what he thinks is the warm, supportive bosom of the family for whom he works. MacFadyen personifies the spirit of the Aryan youth, with sculpted blond hair and a fine, attractive physique and a voice that is both hopeful and fearful as the choppy waters of the Harrington turbulence are navigated.

MacFadyen does not put a foot or a word wrong. He is superlative in every respect. His scenes with Pamela are pitch-perfect; his relations with Stanley are cleverly judged; the moment when he unwittingly makes Louise his enemy by suggesting she might become a second mother to him (her plans were very different) is so perfectly done it makes your bones ache with the pain that only the truth can summon.

Equally, Lucy Cohu, although perhaps too young and too attractive for the role, is a splendid social-climber Louise. Her entire body seems encased in propriety; she walks, talks and moves like a predatory Queen Spider – softly, demurely even, but with a spiky sure sense, aware of her physical charms but stricken by the way her needs are unfulfilled. Cohu makes Louise both the perfect mother and the perfect harridan; two sides of a complex, fascinating coin. Her scenes with MacFadyen are the true highlight of this production and each one leaves a rippling sense of unwashed pain in its wake.

Alas, when it comes to Clive, the character who causes reactions in all the other characters and whose central act of betrayal undoes everyone, but especially Walter, the casting lets all down. Tom Morley is not equal to the challenge Shaffer sets for Clive.

Shaffer does not actually specify whether or not Clive is gay. Stanley worries that he is or will be and Clive’s exchanges with Walter might suggest feelings deeper than mateship – but that uncertainty is at the core of the enigmatic heart of the play. Clive may be in love with Walter but the play can/does work if he is not; the frisson that cascades from their relationship, notably over two long duologues, is part of the tapestry of possibility which shimmers under the surface of the polite conversations carried out in the Harrington household. It is critical that the frisson exists; the truth of the relationship matters, but not as much as the possibilities the relationship offers.

But here, Morley’s choices deny the possibility of the requisite frisson. He is too cold, too artificial, too deliberately floppy-haired, and way too detached. His Clive does not pose any possibility for Walter and his betrayal of Walter is petty and mean-spirited rather than a reflection of his own trauma. For much of the play he was channelling Matt Smith playing a fop rather than being the tortured and uncertain Clive. He seemed to keep Clive at bay rather than embodying him. This may be about Glover’s specific choices or it may be about Morley’s failure to come to grips with the character, but either way, the Clive here is not complicated enough, not mercurial enough, not intoxicating enough, to be the critical character he needs to be.

As a consequence, the triangle at the heart of the play is not equilateral. And without that balanced strength, the nuances inherent in Shaffer’s play are never incisively revealed.

After an uncertain start, Jason Merrells makes a fine Stanley. He is adept at finding the humour in the role and is at his best in the final scenes where everything unravels around him. His relationship with Clive is too surface level to be truly effective and he needed more complexity about his dealings with the female Harringtons.  But his voice, manner and bearing is spot on. Terenia Edwards makes Pamela suitably childish and irritating, but there are depths to the character’s feelings which remain unexplored, unrevealed.

Andrew D Edwards offers an intriguing set. There are two levels and a deal of the action occurs on both levels, still more occurs on the stairway that links them. Because scaffolding is used as the basis for the support, possibly to do with the slow reclamation of the former glories of the Coronet space, there is always a sense of artificiality about the setting. Whether intentional or incidental, this is welcome, because it helps illuminate the artificiality of the Harrington household itself.

There is a clear sense of a country home in the 1950s. The floor boards creak and groan; this is a newly acquired home, clean and tidy, sparsely decorated, but unable to hide its age. It is also a house full of shadows and Johanna Town’s lighting emphasises this; the light is sometimes inquisitional, sometimes falsely cheery, sometimes expectant or enticing: always nicely pitched.

Imogen Knight is credited as Movement Director and is presumably responsible for the chess-piece movements of the cast as the play opens and the first Act concludes. These are odd interludes. If you know the play, they make a kind of sense; if you don’t, it is difficult to imagine their purpose. They suggest lives lived by going through the motions, secrecy and silent manoeuvring. But as the playwright does not introduce the Harringtons and their German-born tutor that way, it is difficult to see the point.

In the end, what stops Glover from fully realising the power of Shaffer’s play may be his own love for it. The passions of the Harrington household need dispassionate attention ; every nuance requires proper weight in order to have proper effect. The fascination of the characters comes from their surprises not from their surfaces. The play’s title suggests many things and this production of Five Finger Exercise delivers but some of those.

Three stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.