Best known these days for his comic novel Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome was famous in his day for his plays as well. His most successful was The Passing of the Third Floor Back, which enjoyed long runs in the West End and Broadway, and inspired several film adaptations. As the Finborough Theatre mounts the first London production of this play for almost 70 years, the time has come to assess whether it retains its appeal.
The Passing of the Third Floor Back is set in a 1907 Bloomsbury boarding house whose spend-thrift housekeeper is a bit of a cheat and whose middle-class guests, relentlessly aspiring to a higher social position, are loathe to let on how much they are all down on their luck.
The play begins with a lengthy prologue that shows them at each other’s throats; everyone in the boarding house is irritable, deceptive, self-interested and generally unlikeable. When the play proper begins, the characters are named and the central scene of the tale occurs.
A peculiarly beguiling stranger arrives to rent the free room on the ‘third floor back’ and, in a kind of inverse An Inspector Calls scenario, has deep conversations with each resident in turn, alerting them to their failings of character and bringing out their ‘better selves.’ The mystery surrounding the identity and purpose of this stranger keeps the audience on tenterhooks.
The production, with its quirky but lovely design by Jasmine Swan, is fascinating to look at. The walls and fireplace of the Bloomsbury house’s sitting room in which we find ourselves seem to be made of burnished metal. The strangely enclosed space this creates suggests the industrial nature of Victorian times, and wonderfully reflects the sunlight that occasionally streams in, symbolising the gradual enlightenment of the characters.
Though some of the actors have to make do with rather stereotypical and underwritten roles, the performances are good all around. Thus, Richard Stirling excellently plays with his comic role as Scottish dandy Alick McGillivray, while Ella Dunlop is heart-warming as rough-around-the-edges but wholesome maid Stasia. Another wonderful touch is harpist Lizzie Faber, seated stage right, whose haunting playing lends the action a special mystique.
By all accounts this is a curiosity rather than a great play, but it is still exceedingly charming, and very funny. One wonders if Jerome, in telling a simple fairy tale about the inherent goodness in all of us at the beginning of the 20th century, was reacting to the then recent establishment of psychoanalysis and Freud’s assertion that humans are neither good nor noble, but desire-driven animals.
Be that as it may, watching Alexander Knox as the Stranger is captivating. Do his oddly intense gazes belie the sincerity of his performance? Perhaps a little. Nevertheless, I was drawn into the cosy nostalgia always evoked by Victorian sitting rooms and the fable’s slight supernatural slant. If for no other reason than to see what delighted West End audiences at the turn of the century, this revival is well worth a visit.
The Passing of the Third Floor Back is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 22 December 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.